Seeking Mac-n-Cheese Perfection: The Ground Rules

OK, it's Monday, enough of the booze chatter. We promised to engage in the pursuit of mac-n-cheese perfection, and here in the Proximal Kitchen, we don't take such promises lightly. If you caught my previous post on mac-n-cheese, despair not yet another sermon from the culinary pulpit, because today's post - our introductory foray into the mac-n-cheese sweepstakes - is all business.

Mac-n-Cheese with Italian Cheeses
Mac-n-Cheese v1.0 with Italian-style cheeses

OK, it’s Monday, enough of the booze chatter. We promised to engage in the pursuit of mac-n-cheese perfection, and here in the Proximal Kitchen, we don’t take such promises lightly.
If you caught my previous post on mac-n-cheese, despair not yet another sermon from the culinary pulpit, because today’s post – our introductory foray into the mac-n-cheese sweepstakes – is all business. I have little doubt that my previous wax-on, wax-off meanderings will return to this thread; but not today. This post will run longer than I (or you) would prefer, but that’s only because I have to set the Ground Rules, and I still owe you a recipe.
As a one-time career student, I usually start any new research project with a review of the literature, so I’ve been reading up on mac-n-cheese. The Internet produces information overload: Lots of great-sounding recipes, a vastly larger number of suspect ones, and all sorts of claims and factoids, both interesting and banal, about the history of this profoundly American dish (who knew that Thomas Jefferson loved to serve a baked macaroni and cheese?). Fortunately, Emily Weinstein, writing for the New York Times, has done much of the work for me, and I highly recommend her article, as well as the recipes referenced therein, many of which helped define my jumping-off point.
My first realization: I will need to focus and compartmentalize this project. I am not going to try every conceivable variation; nor do I think I have to, because I have a pretty good idea about what I want the final result to be, and it doesn’t include broccoli, brie, or chemically engineered low fat substitutions. Thus, after trudging through the requisite forest of recipes, commentary, and philosophical rants concerned with such things, and superimposing my own mental palate, I’ve delineated my take on the critical underlying choice variables:

  1. Unadorned or Dressed Up: You can make a compelling case for mixing in diced ham or broccoli, for a crispy shallot topping, for any number of additions that raise the apparent sophistication of the dish. I don’t object to any of them, so long as they serve a purpose. But none of them are essential, and that is what I’m after: Howsoever wonderful bacon may be, the soul of mac-n-cheese does not depend on it, and neither will our recipes. (I’m undecided on breadcrumbs; my intuition says “no”, but I’m kind of a sucker for crumbly toppings, so I’m reserving the right to try it.)
  2. Sauce or Just Cheese: Most of the classic recipes start with some version of a bechamel sauce, and then build a cheese sauce from there – essentially, a variation on the classic Mornay. But not everyone agrees; there are those who would argue that flour has no place in a true mac-n-cheese, and that cheese alone should suffice to bind the pasta. Like the question of adornment, I don’t need to cook to answer this one: I will never get the texture and depth of flavor I want – both crusty, gooey, and creamy all at the same time, with layers and layers of flavor permeating into the noodles  – without some sort of a mother sauce in which to embed background flavors, to mix and bind the cheeses, and to fill in the the spaces between the layers of pasta. Thus, all of our recipes will start with a basic white sauce based on the classic bechamel.
  3. Cheddar vs Other Cheeses: Most of the recipes I read, and particularly those of the more “classic” variety, depend heavily, if not entirely, on cheddar cheese. I’m unconvinced, and this is where I expect to invest the most time, because, quite obviously, the dish will ultimately fail without the right mixture of cheeses. Furthermore, when I think about the classic cheese sauces, typically some variation on Mornay, I tend to think of Swiss, Alsatian, and Italian cheeses, more than I do cheddar (both Larousse and Michel Roux, in his essential Sauces, agree). Cheddar also presents some textural challenges, as I find that it has a proclivity for breaking (the fats separate during cooking) and turning grainy. For all these reasons, I’m going to try Swiss- , Italian-, and Cheddar-styled cheeses before taking my final stand. 
  4. Choice of Pasta: It may seem oxymoronic to debate the shape of pasta for a dish that is named after one particular shape, but in fact the Italian root – maccherone – is used to refer to most any tube-shaped pasta cut into short, regular lengths. The more important feature, it seems to me, is how particular shapes hold the sauce and whether they maintain their integrity during the second cooking (baking in the sauce after boiling). Also important is how a particular shape sets up because – no disrespect to the oozing-pile approach – I’d prefer to serve a structurally coherent slice of the final product without it spilling all over the plate.

A quick inventory of the cheese drawer yields some aged Provolone, a chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano, but no real cheddar or Swissy-type stuff. The pasta shelf has a few options, most of them (spaghetti, capellini, and a variation on the corkscrew the kids are fond of) inappropriate to the task at hand. I spy some ziti regate, an over-sized, grooved version of penne, which sounds like a good test-case of a larger, straighter tube than th elbow-macaroni benchmark, and also strikes me as fine in its own right. As regular followers already know, I depend heavily on leftovers (indeed, I take the creative and productive use of what is already sitting around to be a badge of honor – it saves time and money, it reduces waste, and it forces me to think like a cook), and thus my first attempt at mac-n-cheese is born of a Provolone-based white sauce over some big, fat pasta tubes.
Mac-n-Cheese, v1.0
This recipe is sized for the pie dish I wanted to bake it in and will generally be “small”, so size it up for larger casseroles.

  1. Cook the pasta: Boil about a 1/2 lb of dried, large-ish tubular pasta, preferably grooved to help grab on to the sauce, such as ziti or rigatoni, in a large pot of salted water (I tend to cook a little extra and then adjust the final quantity of pasta to match the final volume of sauce). Cook only until just barely al dente – the pasta will continue to cook in the oven, and you don’t want it turning to mush. In practice, assuming you are using an Italian boxed pasta that has been packaged for American distribution, this will generally mean you want to pull it off the burner about a minute before the low end of the recommended range (and certainly no later than said lower end). While you’re at it, pre-heat the oven to 350F.
  2. While the pasta is boiling, start the sauce: Make 1/4 cup of blonde roux by cooking 3 tablespoons of flour in 3 tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat. You want to cook the flour, but whisk it around and watch the heat so as not to let it color. Scald 2 cups of whole milk or even cream (although, honestly, I used 2% and it still came out fine) add it slowly to the roux, whisking constantly to avoid lumps (if it gets lumpy, your milk was likely not hot enough, or you added it too quickly; you can always strain it out if that happens). You have what is now a bechamel sauce, but you need to season it – add a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg (maybe 1/8th of a teaspoon – not too much), white pepper (black pepper will screw up the color – this isn’t sausage gravy, it’s a white mac-n-cheese), and salt. Don’t skimp on the salt; it’s important to season each layer of the dish, or the final result will be under-seasoned and bland. Bring to a gentle boil and cook until the sauce thickens up and you no longer taste a raw, floury taste. Don’t forget to take the pasta off the heat and drain it while this is going on!
  3. Stir in the cheeses, starting with about a half-pound of shredded, aged Provolone (slices will melt OK as well). I would not use Mozzarella (not the right texture for melting, or flavor profile, really), but a 50/50 blend of Provolone and Fontina would probably work very well. Once the Provolone has melted completely and the sauce is hot, turn off the heat and stir in most of a gently packed cup of finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano, either by itself or mixed with a little Pecorino Romano for extra bite; reserve a small handful. Check the final sauce for seasoning and adjust, if necessary.
  4. Combine the pasta and the cheese sauce: Transfer most of the pasta back to the pot from which it came, or to a large mixing bowl (glass better than metal, because everything will still be quite hot), pour most of the sauce over the pasta, and gently fold them together to avoid damaging the pasta. Reserve a small amount of pasta and sauce so that you can adjust the quantities, if necessary. Make sure to distribute the sauce uniformly in order to coat all the noodles. The stuff should look like almost as much sauce as pasta, with every noodle heavily coated in a thick slathering of the sauce.
  5. Bake the pasta: Gently fill a small, buttered casserole dish, pie plate, or earthenware crock, pouring the pasta and sauce down in layers; delicately compress the pasta as you go in order to ensure it is basically solid and of a uniform density throughout. Pour any remaining sauce over the top and then sprinkle with the reserved cheeses and dot with butter. Transfer to the bottom rack of a 350-degree (F) oven for about 20 minutes; it will be done when the top and sides are bubbling and just starting to brown. Turn the oven to broil – this will brown the top and create a bubbly, cheesy crust. But watch it carefully, now is not the time to do anything else! (I never, not ever, turn the broiler on without setting  a timer for a minute or two.)
  6. Let it set: Do not attempt to taste or serve for at least 10 minutes – 15-20 is probably better (I’m assuming your kitchen is pretty warm; if not, adjust accordingly). Like any baked pasta, you need to give it time to cool and bind up with some structural integrity; it will also save you and your family from a blistering case of pizza-mouth. Alternatively, if you’re worried about the top getting cold, or timing it for service, remove it from the oven when it’s done, but before broiling it, let it set, and then return to the broiler just before you’re ready to serve it.

My family had the version pictured above for dinner, and found it very satisfying, an overall solid effort. If I’m splitting hairs – and, in the pursuit of cheesy perfection, one must always split hairs – it was a little too sharp for the kids, but I knew going in that this would be a more adult version (the same basic recipe with some mild Fontina, for instance, would be more kid-friendly, and I suspect have a superior texture to boot).
As we’re only beta-testing, I’ll definitely change some things next time:

  • I’m not sure the large pasta shape was ideal; next time, I’ll either use a smaller shape like penne, or the classic elbow macaroni. 
  • The cheeses had great flavor, but were a little one-dimensional, so I’m going to move into the Swissy or Cheddary families next, although I can definitely envision a cheese blend including some of what was used here (particularly the final sprinkling of Parmigiano). Also, the texture was good, but not perfect – the final sauce, out of the oven, would ideally be a bit smoother and more consistent. 
  • I think I would raise the proportion of cheese in the sauce in order to make it slightly less like a cream sauce and slightly more chew in texture.

In short, this is very much worth making, but stay tuned for future upgrades.