M: We didn’t have macaroni and cheese in my house when I was going up. I did eat a fair amount of a product *called* macaroni and cheese, made with an enclosed pouch full of impossibly orange powder. Admittedly tasty, but not the same thing, of course. Don’t get me wrong. I loved that stuff, especially with a hot dog or two cut into pieces and stirred in. Next to bologna sandwiches it was my favorite lunch throughout childhood. But there comes a time when we put childhood things aside and I think it probably wasn’t until my late teens that I really encountered what macaroni and cheese is supposed to be. My brother had a roommate who on occasion would declare he would be providing dinner and would dive into the kitchen, emerging an hour or so later with an enormous casserole dish bubbling over with tender macaroni noodles, three or four sticks of butter and about 8 pounds of gooey cheese. It was fantastic and I was hooked. In years to come, I found a favorite served in a chili joint in my hometown of Cincinnati called Price Hill Chili. Served only on Fridays and never lasting long, I rarely managed to hit the narrow window of availability, but it was comforting to know it was there. It was not the powdered kid stuff of my youth. Even today, I am disappointed when I order mac and cheese in a restaurant only to discover it is something made with that cheese sauce that comes in gallon sized cans. I know I revealed my snobbery on this subject recently when discussing crab dip, but the heart wants what it wants. If it helps, I do still break out a box of the old “Mac ‘n Cheese” on occasion.
This is a fairly grownup version of the classic. Fresh spices, a little white wine, dijon mustard… truly macaroni and cheese for a post-”flavor pouch” lifestyle. I liked the flavors a lot, but did find I needed to double the flour to get it to thicken up properly. Left to my own devices, I would probably have increased the amount of cheese used as well, but I’d do my best to keep it under 8 pounds. I’m not a teenager anymore. I still kind of want to cut a hot dog up and toss it in though.
K: Liar. You want bacon in this and you know it. (M: Yeah, OK. I’ll give you that. But then, what don’t I want bacon in?)
So, macaroni & cheese and me? OLD friends. I grew up eating both the homemade and the box version, and I am not ashamed to say that I loved them both. It also never really occured to me that they were the same thing at all. (Not all that dissimilar to the same kooky-kid logic that at 11 told me I could be a vegetarian except for pepperoni, because somehow pepperoni wasn’t meat in my head.) I mean, yes, they were both CALLED macaroni & cheese, but they just never….merged in my head until my teen years. I pretty universally prefer the homemade these days, though I am in the distinct minority in my house. Nevertheless, I’ve made this particular recipe no fewer than 4 times in the last month or so while trying to get it to work for me. I know, right? Poooooor us.
It turns out that, sadly, I had a couple different issues with this recipe. The first is the flour/milk ratio in the base sauce. Even the thinnest of white sauces (which is the base for most dishes of this type) calls for 1 tablespoon of flour and butter for each cup of milk, and this recipe calls for just under half of that, meaning that it really never thickened in any noticeable way, and that there wasn’t enough starch to buffer the melting cheese which clumped like CRAZY. So I tweaked the sauce to get it up to a ‘thin white sauce’ consistency by using 1/4 cup each of the flour and butter, with great success. My other issue, however, was not so easily solved. It was the prepared mustard, or more specifically, the vinegar in said mustard that kept causing my sauce to ‘break’. Hot milk plus acid equals coagulation, and even when I put the mustard in at the very end, off the heat, just before stirring in the pasta, it still broke in the oven while the casserole baked. Since it doesn’t affect the flavor, we cheerfully ate every bit of it and loved it, but I wouldn’t have been able to take it to potluck. On the final attempt, I went back to the more traditional ground mustard, but put it in with the flour to try to extract the most flavor possible, and that was just the ticket. And just in time, too, this was killing several of my new year’s resolutions.
Recipe: Macaroni and Cheese
Summary: Tangy, creamy, cheesy goodness. How could this be anything but fantastic? From The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook.
- 1 tsp Sea Salt
- 1 Lb Uncooked Macaroni
- 2 T Butter (K: I used 1/4 c)
- 1 Small Onion, chopped
- 1 Clove Garlic, peeled and bruised
- 1 Sprig Thyme
- 1 Sprig Rosemary
- 1/4 c Dry White Wine
- 2 T Flour ( We used 1/4 c)
- 3 1/2 c Whole Milk
- 2 T Dijon Mustard
- Salt and Pepper
- 4 1/2 c White Cheddar Cheese (M: Mine was not so much white as orange)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Bring a large pot of water to boil and add salt an macaroni to cook 3 minutes.
- In a heavy saucepan, saute onion, garlic, thyme and rosemary in butter until onion is soft (about 5 minutes).
- Add wine and cook until liquid nearly gone (about 3 minutes).
- Discard garlic, rosemary and thyme, then sprinkle flour to pan and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
- Slowly add milk to pan, stirring well to avoid clumping.
- Stir in mustard and season with salt and pepper and simmer until thickened (about 3 minutes).
- Stir in 3 c of cups of cheese a handful at a time, letting each addition melt before adding more.
- Remove for heat and stir in macaroni.
- Transfer to 9×13 baking dish, top with remaining cheese and bake 20 minutes, until cheese is golden (about 25 minutes).