Macaroni and cheese (also known as mac ‘n’ cheese) is the quintessential American comfort food. Yes, American –– American to the core because it was a creation of our third president, Thomas Jefferson (Jefferson was really big on food and wine, a real gourmand).
How popular is macaroni and cheese? Consider that Kraft Foods sells something like a million-plus boxes of its macaroni and cheese each and every day. And, believe it or not, there are mac ‘n’ cheese fanatics across the country, and each and everyone of them has the best recipe ever (similar to the idea that everybody you talk to has the best chili recipe). Just say the words “macaroni and cheese” to a neighbor, friend, or even a casual acquaintance, and you will open a discussion on the spot. And don’t even get it into your head that macaroni and cheese is just for kids, or that it should be only on the kid’s menu (though invariably it does show up there).
How about mac ‘n’ cheese as a side dish? Yes, many restaurants will offer it as such and other than, say, some type of potato, it is a popular choice. However, several months ago I was dining at a rather nice restaurant in Chicago and was pleased to see that macaroni and cheese was listed as an entrée. OK, so they gussied it up with some classy cheeses and prosciutto and charged a good buck for it, but it was quite delicious.
Macaroni and cheese has but two main ingredients. It sounds simple to make. How far wrong can one go? Pretty darn far, I say, unless you pay attention to the macaroni and the cheese. How so? Some cuts of macaroni work better than others. And ditto for the cheese (or cheeses).
The classic pasta cut for mac ‘n’ cheese is elbow, but any “short” pasta cut can be used (rotini, tubetti, gemelli, mini-penne, cavatappi). Important, too, is that a quality brand of pasta be used.
As far as the cheeses go, the signature cheese for this dish is sharp cheddar (but mild cheddar works fine too). Also important to this dish is the sauce, which is generally a bechamel or white sauce spiked with a bit of dried mustard. Some onion also helps to boost the flavor.
Is it necessary that all mac ‘n’ cheese dishes be baked? No, but a short bake does enhance the flavor profile. Can individual portions of mac ‘n’ cheese be made ahead and finished to order? Yes, definitely, but you need to be right on the money with the cooking of the pasta (mushy macaroni and cheese is not good for the image of this classic dish).
What add-ins are possible to, say, make a gourmet macaroni & cheese offering? As noted earlier, prosciutto works beautifully, and so does smoked ham. Crumbles of cooked Italian sausage works great. Add in pancetta or bacon and you will have a modified version of pasta carbonara. Cooked chicken? Yes. Tuna? Yes. Vegetable add-ins like peas work too. But don’t get carried away. The overall goodness of this dish lies in its simplicity.
Here are two very delicious yet simple macaroni and cheese recipes. One version is perfect for a kids’ menu while the other is more suitable for adults (but there is no reason why either can’t cross the age line).
Pasquale’s Macaroni & Cheese
This is my version of mac ‘n’ cheese: Italian style. I use cavatappi pasta instead of elbow macaroni. I use a combination of cheeses instead of the usual sharp cheddar. But the all-important classic flavor kicks –– dry mustard and cayenne–– are still included.
Yield: 6-8 servings (scale up in direct proportion)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups milk
1 ½ teaspoons dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1/8 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 pound cavatappi pasta
1/4 pound each of shredded provolone, Asiago, and mozzarella (about 1 cup of each cheese)
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs (or Panko)
1 tablespoon dried oregano, crumbled.
In a heavy saucepan melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, whisking, for 3 minutes. Add the milk in a steady stream, whisking steadily, and bring to a boil. Add the mustard, cayenne, and salt. Whisk to combine. Simmer the sauce until it thickens, about 2-3 minutes. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water until it is still a bit short of al dente (firm, actually). Drain well. Butter a shallow 3- to 4-quart baking dish.
In a large bowl stir together the cooked pasta, the white sauce, provolone, Asiago and mozzarella. Transfer the mixture to the buttered baking dish. Smooth off the top.
In a small bowl, combine the Parmesan, breadcrumbs and oregano. Layer this mixture evenly over the pasta. Bake in the preheated oven for about 20-25 minutes or until golden and bubbling.
Cook’s Note: Instead of baking the mac ‘n’ cheese in one large baking dish, you can portion (before baking) individual servings in smaller baking dishes. Top with the panko or bread crumbs and bake. Reheat to order.
Quick ‘n’ Easy Mac ‘n’ Cheese
Yield: 4 servings (but can be done in individual portions)
12 ounces elbow macaroni, cooked, drained, held
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon dry mustard
3/4 cup milk
1½ cups grated mild or sharp cheddar
Melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk into the butter. Add the dry mustard. Cook for about 2 minutes. Add the milk and continue to cook and whisk for about 4 minutes, or until the mixture thickens. Fold in the cheese and stir with a spoon until the cheese melts. Stir in the cooked macaroni and combine thoroughly. Can now be portioned for individual servings. Sprinkle some toasted fresh breadcrumbs on top before serving.
Cook’s Note: This recipe goes together fast, and no baking is needed, so it’s perfect for a Kids’ menu.