Mac and Cheese++

The ability to make macaroni and cheese is a basic parental survival skill. The problem is, the boxed Kraft stuff tastes of chemicals. Although the Annie’s and Whole Foods brands are better — without being overly expensive — I’m still turned off by that packaged powdered cheese food stuff. Eventually I realized that since the water-boiling and pasta-cooking steps dominate the time required to cook mac and cheese, making it from scratch is no slower than making it from a box.

The simplest version of the recipe below gives a result that looks about like boxed mac and cheese while tasting far better. If you use high-quality cheeses and throw in onions, peas, white wine, and some ham or bacon, the resulting dish approaches the savory goodness of a simple risotto.

This is one of those recipes where no measuring whatsoever is required. However, I’ll give approximate amounts calibrated to match a half-pound of dry pasta.

  1. Before even thinking about the cheese sauce, get the water heating. Don’t skimp on the amount and make sure not to overcook the pasta.
  2. Heat 2-3 tablespoons of fat or oil over low heat in a small saucepan. I usually use olive oil, butter, or a combination. If Sarah’s not looking I may sneak in some bacon fat.
  3. Add salt and ground pepper.
  4. Optionally: Add a few tablespoons of diced onion and/or garlic.
  5. Optionally: Add a few tablespoons of diced cooked ham or bacon.
  6. Optionally: Add a big handful of frozen peas or shelled edamame.
  7. When the fat is hot and any extras have cooked a bit, add 1.5 teaspoons of all-purpose flour. Mix well. Most white sauce recipes call for more flour than this, but a teaspoon or so is enough to make a smooth cheese sauce.
  8. Next, add some liquid. Milk, water, white wine, or chicken stock will all work. A few tablespoons is enough. Stir well until a nice creamy, bubbling white sauce is formed. It shouldn’t be lumpy.
  9. Next, add at least 1.5 cups of grated cheese. Pretty much anything will work but the better the cheese, the better the final product. This is a good time to clean up those small fragments of cheese that often lurk in the fridge. Cheddar, perhaps mixed with some parmesan, is ideal. When I use gruyère, the kids say the resulting dish is “stinky but good.”
  10. Stir until the cheese melts into the white sauce, making a nice gooey mess. Don’t overheat this, or cook it any longer than it takes to make a smooth cheese sauce.
  11. Fold the cheese sauce into the drained pasta, which ideally became ready just as the cheese sauce did.

Yum! Kids are the excuse for this dish but I’d cook it for myself in a heartbeat.

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