Mac and cheese

Everywhere I go, I’m finding macaroni and cheese. Family restaurants like Max and Erma’s have added it to the menu. For a while, Burger King was offering Kraft mac & cheese as an option in its kid’s meals. It’s become the go-to when my wife and I take the girls out to dinner, and it’s my older daughter’s all-time favorite food. Everybody’s happy, everybody wins, right?

This past weekend, the family and I had dinner with my sister-in-law and her husband at a “bar and grille” in Madison, New Jersey. Any place the adds an “e” to the word grill clearly takes its menu seriously, and one of the entrees was an “adult” mac and cheese. While “a luscious aged cheddar and American cheese blend, baked with a scallion breadcrumb crust and a touch of brandy” sounded tempting to me, my daughter — the m&c expert — doesn’t like her mac and cheese to be too fussy. Mushrooms? Onions? A Ritz cracker crust? She’s out. The kid’s menu included “mac’n cheese” without any additional description, so we crossed our fingers when both the girls ordered it.

Inexplicably, when the kid’s “mac’n cheese” arrived, it was a bunch of elbow noodles swimming in Velveeta. The girls wouldn’t touch it. I was severely annoyed and just a little proud. (They ended up sharing my burger, which looked like it was good.)

So last night, to make up for it, we made a batch of our own mac and cheese at home. It’s pretty basic, but worth sharing as an alternative to the standard boxed version. Not that the salty, tangy, powdered cheese substitute variety doesn’t have its appeal, but just a little bit of effort can give you noodles swimming in a gorgeous, golden, sharp cheddar sauce.

You’ll need:

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 cups (8 ounces) shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups elbow macaroni

Start by melting the butter over low heat, and then add the flour. It’ll start off looking like this:

roux before

And as the magic happens, it’ll start looking like this:

roux after

As many of you know, what you’re doing is making a roux, where the flour particles form an emulsion in the butter fat and act as the base for your eventual cheese sauce. As anyone who has watched a Velveeta commercial knows, while cheddar tastes awesome, when it melts it gets kind of oily. Thus the sauce rather than just melting a block of cheddar over the noodles. (Which would actually taste fine, if you don’t mind the oil.)

(If you want to stretch a little bit, you can continue to heat the roux a minute or two before moving on to the next step. It’ll toast the flour, giving you a darker roux and a slightly nutty flavor to your final mac and cheese.)

Add the milk and salt to your roux, and melt the cheese into the sauce, adding a little at a time. Pro tip: those packages of pre-shredded cheese you can find in the supermarket are generally exactly two cups (8 ounces). If you’re like me and pull the package straight from the freezer, you can raise the heat to medium. Stir until all the cheese has melted. It’ll be a golden pot of cheesy awesomeness to make Velveeta curl up with envy, and it’ll look something like this:

cheesy awesomeness

Boil the noodles while you’re making the sauce. When both are done, stir together in an oven-safe casserole dish. When we’re in a hurry, we’ll serve the mac and cheese just like this.

fast mac

The girls have never complained, but I’m much happier when we throw the mixture into a 350-degree oven for 20-25 minutes, and it comes out looking something like this:

baked mac

Most of the “adult” restaurant mac and cheeses you’ll find will have some sort of a breadcrumb crust, which is wonderful, but even just the cheese sauce by itself will give you a nice, tasty crust after baking. (If you prefer a creamier mac and cheese, you can double the milk in the sauce to two cups.)

And now you’re ready to experiment! Mushrooms! Jalepeños! More cheese! But even without all that, you have a wonderful, rich, cheesy macaroni and cheese. Even better, so long as you’re not feeding a group, you’ll have leftovers waiting for you any time need a warm plate of comfort food.

Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.

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