Mac and cheese is a cute way of saying macaroni and cheese, which is a cute way of saying macaroni and cheese sauce. That’s my theory. Think about the famous “blue box,” where cheese powder teams up with milk and margarine. Or, think back even earlier—like, a couple centuries earlier—to 1769, when Elizabeth Raffald wrote The Experienced English Housekeeper. There, she gives instructions for a noodle casserole, bound with cheddar-laden béchamel, plus bread crumbs and grated cheese on top. How Martha.
Béchamel is one of the five French mother sauces. Mother because, with the addition of this or that, these sauces produce countless daughter sauces. Add cheese to béchamel, for instance, and you get Mornay. Gruyère is the classic French choice, but cheddar is classic mac and cheese.
And mac and cheese is why we’re here. Well, sort of. We were talking about this at the editorial table the other day—you know, your usual workplace chitchat—what does macaroni even mean? Macaroni is so tied to cheese—and macaroni and cheese is so tied to tiny elbows—that macaroni has become practically synonymous with that pasta shape. But, by definition, macaroni is “pasta made from semolina and shaped in the form of slender tubes.” Which means mac and cheese could just as well be made with cavatappi or penne or bucatini. Or tater tots!
Okay, that’s a stretch—but let’s give a whirl. Bake tater tots until golden and crispy. Smother in cheddar-rich Mornay. Blanket in more cheese because cheese. Broil until bubbly and freckly. Because tots are traditionally baked on a sheet tray, I wanted to keep them there, much like our co-founder Amanda’s extra-crunchy mac and cheese. The result is my new favorite cheesy potato gratin or potatoey not-mac and cheese. Let’s just call it dinner.
- 2 1/2 pounds frozen tater tots
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 3 3/4 cups whole milk, warmed
- 4 cups grated extra-sharp cheddar (about 12 ounces), divided
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground mustard
What’s your favorite way to adapt mac and cheese? Or dress up tater tots? Spill all your secrets in the comments below!