Ever since Jefferson got his macaroni machine, and possibly even before that, American home cooks have been on a quest to get it right -- we want the bouncy noodles, the creamy cheese sauce, and the crunchy cap.
Skip it and the cheese inevitably toughens and the grease breaks free. (A notable exception: Amanda's truly genius baking sheet mac and cheese, which cooks quickly enough not to destroy the tenuous impromptu cheese sauce.)
Resort to American cheese or Velveeta and sure, you lock down creaminess, but along with it comes that tongue-coating nacho cheez stickiness that has no place on a noodle. (Both of these are actually "cheese food", emulsified with water and a lot of ingredients we laypeople don't understand).
And so, we must go béchamel, which is really no trouble at all -- it's just milk thickened with flour. All you do is quickly sizzle a roux of flour and butter just until it smells toasty; whisk in warm milk and watch it thicken up as you stir; then finally stir in a whole mess of grated cheese (see the whole process go down in the slideshow below). A silken sauce is your payoff -- which is now technically a Mornay, the wholesome role model for cheez food to look up to.
Stewart's recipe nails the béchamel and, unsurprisingly, is spot on in every other way too. Her sauce-to-noodle ratio is appropriately soupy going into the oven, so that the undercooked pasta can soak up some of the sauce as it finishes plumping, without drying the whole thing out.
Her cheese selection -- mostly sharp cheddar, funked up with a little Gruyere -- is the perfect middle ground between pungent, smooth, and melty.
And her crunchy top layer may be most exciting of all. Instead of the classic speckly layer of bread crumbs, she has us tear white sandwich bread into craggy chunks (or you can dice it all cute like we did, à la Smitten Kitchen). The cubes float on the top of the casserole, toasting into dainty croutons.
Admittedly, this recipe isn't the easiest macaroni on the block. Stewart's original version calls for dirtying four different pots before it even hits the baking dish. But, within reason, you can sneak a few past Martha. You can heat the butter for the croutons and even the milk in the microwave, if you're feeling wild, and you can make your cheese sauce in the same pot you boiled your pasta. If you're really crafty, you could even bake it in the very same pot.
For a frenzied shortcut, I've even skipped par-boiling the noodles first. It works, kind of -- the pasta cooks up al dente, but it sops up much of the free moisture in the sauce, leaving it more globby than creamy. I can't say I really recommend it -- but it would have been mighty un-American of me not to try.
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for dish 6 slices good white bread, crusts removed, torn or diced into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces 5 1/2 cups milk 1/2 cup all-purpose flour 2 teaspoons salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste 4 1/2 cups grated sharp white cheddar cheese (about 18 ounces) 2 cups grated Gruyere cheese (about 8 ounces) or 1 1/4 cups grated Pecorino Romano cheese (about 5 ounces) 1 pound elbow macaroni (or other small pasta shape)
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photos by James Ransom
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I'm an ex-economist, ex-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."