September 24, 2015

Stovetop Mac n Cheese

Anyone in a 5 mile radius knows that there is a plague making its way through campus, and I've been stuck with it for about a week now. People have made a game out of people coughing in lecture since it's impossible to go 10 seconds without hearing someone hack up a lung. It's pretty gross world outside, kids, and that means it's time for comfort food.

My floormates are convinced that our dining hall makes fantastic mac n cheese, but I just don't get it. It's often dried out and crusty, and I like mine gooey and creamy, a.k.a. stovetop mac n cheese It's a five-ingredient masterpiece that is better than the box and perfect for chilly fall weeknights, especially if you're sick and craving easy comfort food. Since I realize that some people like baked mac n cheese with crisp, buttery breadcrumbs, I included a variation below for that as well.

One of the reasons why I like this recipe is because it's so simple. Why labor over mac n cheese from scratch if the box is right there? Luckily this recipe is almost as easy, and you get to eat your favorite (*REAL*) cheese instead of the neon orange powder, which will be phased out to a more "normal" color in 2016. You can pick any cheese or combination of cheeses you want, as long as you have at least one good melting cheese in there. Cheddar is my go-to, but you can add or swap pepperjack for a spicy kick, or American or Velveeta for an extra-gooey bowl. Parmesan and/or gruyere are great for adding complex, nutty notes, and fontina or brie would add a lovely richness. Try talking to the people at your grocery store's cheese counter for advice on flavor combinations.

Contrary to what most Wisconsinites would like to think, you do need to add a little more than just cheese to your mac to make the perfect mac n cheese. No matter how good at melting your cheese may be, it just won't have the creaminess of a good mac n cheese unless you make a bechamel sauce as a base, which just involves making a quick roux and adding some milk.

A roux is a mixture of fat and flour. My fat of choice is butter because it imparts such a great flavor. I add the flour to the hot butter and whisk it until thick and golden. This is a blonde roux since I want a mild flavor, which means avoiding excessive browning. When the roux is done, I take it off the heat and slowly whisk in the milk. It's going to get really, really thick and then start to thin out, but it is crucial that you stir in the milk slowly to avoid lumps. I'll say it again--DO THIS PART SLOWLY UNLESS YOU WANT LUMPY MAC N CHEESE. Once you have a perfectly smooth, velvety bechamel, stir in your mountains of grated cheese and whisk until smooth again. Grating your cheese (or breaking it into small pieces if it's too soft to shred) makes it melt faster, which means you can eat sooner.

I hate to write about the pasta as an afterthought, but I'm pretty sure everyone has cooked pasta at some point in their life. Heat some water to a boil, add lots of salt (but no oil), and cook your pasta until al dente, especially if you want to bake your mac n cheese later. Drain it and save some of the water for the sauce if you want to thicken it up a bit. Adding starchy pasta water is a much better idea than throwing in raw flour.

Finally, you can bring everything together by dumping the pasta into the sauce and pouring the whole thing into a bowl just for you. Well, maybe not, but at least give yourself more than the stingy scoop the dining hall employees give my friends and I. If you want to bake your mac n cheese, spread it into a glass pan (preferably with ~2" tall sides to contain it), top with panko crumbs and/or more grated cheese, and bake until golden and bubbly at around 375. You can also stir in bacon, other meats or sausages, fresh or roasted vegetables, more cheese, or whatever else you have on hand. My ideal ratio is 40% cheese, 40% bacon, and 20% pasta, but you do you.

4 Cups Milk, Warmed
6 T Butter
1/2 Cup Flour
1 1/2 lbs Pasta
4 Cups Shredded Cheese (Cheddar, American, Pepperjack, Parmesan, etc.)

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk constantly until lightly browned, about 4 minutes, and remove from heat. Slowly whisk in the milk and season generously with salt and pepper. Return the pot to low heat and cook until thickened, about 4 minutes.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente according to package directions.

Meanwhile, whisk the cheese into the bechamel. Drain the pasta, stir into the sauce, and serve immediately. To bake, see directions above.

Serves 6
Recipe Adapted from Chow

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