Saturday, November 28, 2009

Proper Macaroni and Cheese

I have never understood the gourmet-izing of mac and cheese because this is how it was always made in my house when we were kids.

1 heaping cup of macaroni. It's closer to a cup and a half. It must be the elbow kind- any other sort is pasta, but it isn't macaroni.

1 heaping tablespoon all purpose flour. Mom had a particular serving spoon that was used to measure the correct amount.
about 2 tablespoons butter
1 cup milk
about a half pound of medium or sharp cheddar, grated.
a heaping tablespoon of yellow mustard. French's was the brand of choice.
a good shake of dried oregano
salt & pepper to taste

Boil the macaroni and set it aside in your baking dish. Preheat the oven to 350.

To be perfectly honest, I am still not super good at the next part. I think I am too impatient, and usually put the cheese in too soon, or heat the sauce too fast. Alton Brown has covered this territory in an excellent episode of Good Eats. If like me, you find that your sauce has a slight tendency to break, and (unlike me) are motivated enough to find out why it does that, I recommend looking it up.

Put the butter and flour in a small saucepan on medium heat and fry the flour until it gets a little bit brown and smells toasty. Take it off the heat, add the milk and stir vigorously to prevent lumps from forming. Turn the stove down to medium-low, and heat the sauce gently, stirring constantly. When the sauce starts to thicken, add the cheese in about 3 batches, letting it melt between each addition. Once all the cheese is in, add the rest of the ingredients, stir to combine and pour over the macaroni. Top with a little extra grated cheese. I usually put a little green-can parmesan on mine, but this is not part of the official, Chin-child approved recipe. Bake for up to an hour, until it is as crispy topped as you want it.

Apparently, this is regarded as 'fancy' mac and cheese in some circles. The frying butter and flour thing. After a childhood of watching this done as a matter of course, both for this purpose and for making gravy for biscuits, it still seems prissy and nouveau-annoying to call it 'making a roux'. But so it is, I just never knew it. I think I was in my late teens or early twenties when it finally sank in that most people think macaroni and cheese from scratch is made with american processed cheese food. I'm sure the mac and cheese in the school hot lunch contained a large amount of it, and to this day I find it difficult to stomach macaroni prepared in such a way. The odor is quite distinctive.

American cheese was not known in our house. I realize that its characteristics are ideal for melting and staying liquid once melted, but its really gross. It does not taste like cheese. It does not taste like much of anything. It smells a little like feet, and not in a good way. Not like real cheese, which can have an intense pungency before I will be put off by it.  Yes, I do like a grilled cheese sandwich with it sometimes; but I maintain that it is not, in fact, cheese, and that real macaroni and cheese has nothing to say to it. But American cheese does explain why some people will pay 9 dollars or some foolish thing for a plate of mac and cheese at a restaurant. If all you ever had was Kraft Dinner or, as a step up, macaroni with american cheese further desecrated by the addition of such foreign objects as popcorn shrimp, peas, or hot dogs, macaroni and cheese actually made from scratch, with real ingredients, might be something special.

My recipe has changed a bit over the years. I like to use several sorts of cheese at once, if I have them. A combination of swiss and cheddar with something softer, like munster, makes a good batch. Parmesan and sometimes buttered breadcrumbs on top.  However, it is always to be served with peas and corn as a side dish.When I can first remember, Mom would make a clear gravy of sorts by leaving a little water in the peas and corn and boiling in a little cornstarch, salt, and pepper. Later we dispensed with this, having decided that peas and corn are actually pretty tasty by themselves. There must have been other things we ate with it, ham probably, because Dad had a fixation on those giant bone-in picnic hams.

At any rate, the other thing in the picture is my generic mix of roasted veggies. This time it was a fennel bulb and a celery root bought at the last farmer's market of the year, along with some odds and ends lying around the fridge: a few baby carrots, a large russet potato and a leftover onion half. Chop, toss with salt, pepper, rosemary, marjoram and lots of olive oil, bake at 375 until slightly browned. Stir a couple times or they'll cook unevenly. Try to keep the fennel at the bottom of the pile, it'll stay more tender that way.


  1. Just a ote or two about the sauce. Melt but don't over heat the butter. Take it off the heat, and blend in the flour off-burner, till it's smooth. Add the milk, still off-burner, and mix it enough that the flour-butter mixture is pretty well unstuck from the pan. Then put it back on the burner, and stir gently but constantly until it just starts to thicken. Then very quickly add all the other ingredients, stir them up well and immediately mix into the macaroni. If you're using a clear glass baking dish, it's done when you see bubbles start to rise from the bottom of the dish.