Mac & cheese: a treatise

Growing up, the only mac & cheese we really ever ate was from the blue box.  There was lots of pasta, of course, and that was important stuff.  I learned about different sauces, meat components, herbs, cheeses, you get it.  I know my way around a marinara, bolognese, carbonara, vodka sauce; pancetta, meatballs, necks & shanks, whatever.  But noodles with a creamy cheese sauce and possibly crisp top?  Not something that any of my people made from scratch (or possibly even knew could be made from scratch).

Fast forward 20 years.  Now rewind 2.  My pal Theo – food guy, excellent writer, and general dude-who-knows-people – puts on a Mac & Cheese cookoff.  Expecting to give it the old college try, make a mac that is middling-at-best, and just have a nice time, I win 1st place.  I am shocked and proud.  Now that I’m family-famous (like Internet-famous, just with less fame), over the next 2 years I am asked to make mac & cheese for pretty much every Thanksgiving, which often means two different Thanksgiving meals per year, as well as other occasions.  I’m happy to have the chance to play with the recipe, and I change it up a little each time.  So this year, I enter again, but then I’m a little intimidated by my own history.  I manage to stress myself out – about a voluntary, just-for-fun amateur cookoff, people – wondering if I’ve still Got It, if I can replicate the apparent Miracle at Louie’s that took place 2 years before.

So here, I am going to spoil it for you, because if you read this blog, you probably also have read things on Facebook or Instagram that would strongly suggest that I won again.

spoiler alert.

spoiler alert.

You can find the original recipe over here, and use it to your heart’s content!  Today I’m talking about some bigger concepts in mac & cheesery that I suspect have helped get me from Point A (blue box) to Point B (dairy wishes and casserole dreams).  Techniques!  Features!  A few key ingredients!

Feel like you have a great recipe and don’t need my meddling?  High five, you superstar! – this may bore you.

Feel like you have a pretty good base but are looking to up your game?  Let’s talk about it!

Feel like mac & cheese is your own personal kitchen Everest, and you are at the bottom, squinting up at the summit, wearing old gym sneakers and gripping a pool cue for a walking stick?  It’s okay.  Take a seat.  I’m hoping this is useful for anyone interested in tackling or improving the dish.

(Note:  it’s long!  I am not kidding about the treatise.  But it is broken down into sections and written with your enjoyment and entertainment in mind, so if the time does not fly, you can at least skip around.)

1.  Sauce

If you’ve spent all this time melting cheddar into cooked pasta and calling it good, I think I have found your problem.  Not that noodle nachos aren’t a delicious snack (or meal, particularly for one’s first trimester, ahem), but they are not the same as mac & cheese. I’ve found the best technique for a creamy mac with a bit of cheese-stretch is a combination of a bechamel-based cheese sauce, as well as melty cheeses throughout the layers of noodles.  We’ll talk about your cheese selections later, but for now let’s stick with sauce. You can find my method for mac-specific bechamel and cheesy layers in the original Le Mac Meilleur recipe (linked above).  A few things to highlight/remember:

  • Don’t obsess over the consistency of your bechamel.  I have been guilty of too much caution while making my bechamel, and have overcooked the sauce before adding the cheese.  I wanted to make sure my flour/butter/milk mixture tasted like more than its composite parts, which was an innocent mistake, but a little naive.  Once adding the milk, your sauce will thicken up nicely within the requisite time, but don’t fret if its not a creamy, unctuous mass in the pan before you add the cheese.  It shouldn’t be.  Remember you’re making a strong yet flexible base.
  • Do use regular milk.  (Okay, maybe not skim.)  I have learned the hard way that richer does not always equal better in mac & cheese.  There IS such a thing as too much cheese, and there IS such a thing as a sauce too rich.  Don’t use cream for this.  Don’t even bother with half & half.  The fat content of your cheese – which should be relatively high – will more than make up for your sauce base.  I use 2% because it’s what I tend to have around, but I’m also not opposed to whole milk for this.
  • Do use powdered mustard.  Not the same as the yellow mustard you squeeze onto hot dogs.  Get a tin of Colman’s or something, plan to use it for mac & cheese, and salad dressings in a jar and occasional other things, and be at peace with it.  Most importantly, this will help your sauce come and stay together, and will keep it tight (but not too tight!), while providing a really excellent je ne sais quoi bite that compliments your cheeses, keeping the dish from tasting too bland or elementary.
  • White pepper is a thing you should try.  Not a total requirement or dealmaker, but there is a certain barnyard element to white pepper that works beautifully with the mustard and mass of cheese, and one that black pepper just does not have.  Also, if your mac is lighter in color owing to your cheeses, the white pepper blends in a lot nicer.  It still has a punch, so go slow at first.

2.  Noodles/pasta

Yes, it is called “macaroni and cheese” for a reason.  Those elbows are classic, and there is nothing wrong with them.  But they could be… more right. My very favorite shape, after a veritable tour of the pasta aisle, is cavatappi.  They hang on to just enough sauce inside, and plenty on the outside – but still move nicely amid the cheese and sauce to hold their own.  I think this is due to their unique shape – kind of like a hollow tendril.  The texture of that little spiral is also very nice to – sorry, I’m going to say it – run your tongue along once you get a forkful.

Here’s a rundown of some other shapes you might be wondering about:

  • Elbows:  classic, yes, but sometimes get lost in the ocean of cheese.  It will depend on your audience and the variety and quantity of cheeses that you use.
  • Pipe rigate:  while they would appear to be a nice alternative, they often will hold on to too much sauce inside, and weigh down the whole thing.  It is not a nice time for your tummy.  (Or, I suppose, it’s not bad, but it could be much better.)  This is a lovely shape for more rustic, chunky pasta dishes.
  • Bow ties:  lay too flat and hold onto bupkes for sauce.  Forget it.
  • Penne:  disappoint me every time.  They seem too long to be of any use as a hollow pasta – a category that generally would hold promise for mac & cheese.
  • Wagon wheels:  a) those are still a thing?  b) don’t get me started.

I’m not saying you can’t use these shapes.  I’m asking why you would when the answer is right in front of you.  Cavatappi!

3.  Cheese

Have you been waiting for this part?  Maybe so.  I wanted to start with the two above because they are serious building blocks and appear to be overlooked too often.

But now that you’re set on your sauce game and your noodle shape, yes, let’s talk about cheese.  (My favorite topic!)

There are some cheeses that I strongly recommend as part of your dairy lineup, and there are cheeses that, though they’ve shown much promise, have broken my heart in the execution.  I’ll break this up into USE US A LOT and USE US SPARINGLY, OR NEVER.  Then we’ll talk about some good middle-ground cheeses – arguably the fun part, where you can play with some unique varieties.

A note:  for mac & cheese, you will need to shred these by yourself, like a grownup.  (It’s a great job to give to a grownup-in-training, too.)   The pre-shredded versions of things like cheddar, mozzarella, or anything else include often-natural but always-not-melt-friendly ingredients like cellulose, potato starch, or even synthetic stuff.  The purpose of these is to keep the shreds from sticking in transport and while at the store, which is a thoughtful touch.  However, for our purposes here, this is your enemy.  Buy the chunk and shred at home.  If you have a food processor with a shred attachment (if you have the former, you probably have the latter), this will be more than a breeze.

USE US A LOT  (Read:  we are just-okay snacking cheeses but DAYUM we melt well.  Best supporting cheeses.  Utility players.  You need us.  Otherwise your mac is a Shia LaBoeuf solo project and it gets heavy and weird.)

  • Red wax gouda:  aka young gouda, aka dat yung gouda lyfe
  • Mild/medium cheddar:  heavily aged or “sharp” cheddar is not included here, we will get to those
  • Fontina fontal:  an Italian cheese whose sole purpose in life is to melt and be silky (not the same as conventional supermarket “fontina”)
  • Swiss or emmental/emmentaler:  the flavors of these cheeses are rather evocative and pronounced, so only use heavily if your mac accessories (mix ins, toppings, other parts of the meal) normally go well with swiss
  • Mozzarella:  old-skool pizza topping mozzarella, not the fresh mozzarella (too wet to use as a utility player)

A variety of origins is represented here, so I think you will be able to find a cheese base to support whatever flavor profile or theme you’re going for.  My personal favorite combo is young gouda and fontina fontal, teamed with some of the “middle ground” cheeses outlined later.

USE US SPARINGLY, OR NEVER  (Read:  we are probably really delicious in real life, but due to our age, moisture content, flavor, or even cost, using us in quantity will only disappoint.  Snack on us with abandon!)

  • Sharp, or extra sharp cheddar:  the yellow stuff.  This lands more squarely in the “sparingly” camp, especially if you/your mac audience are cheddar lovers (and who isn’t?).  Usually, the sharper the cheddar, the lower the moisture content, so the lower the melt factor.
  • English/clothbound cheddars:  same as above – who does not love these?  Depending on the origin and sharpness, an English-style cheddar could even be considered for the utility team, but taste first to determine moisture and melt capabilities.  Also, the clothbound ones tend to be a bit pricey, and I find that their earthy nuance often gets lost in the sea of mac.  These are often best left as “eating cheeses.”
  • Aged gouda:  I KNOW, I KNOW.  Aged gouda’s nutty caramel notes would seem to be a dead ringer for a perfect mac cheese, but due to its moisture content and unique natural sugars, it will melt a bit then just play dead and get stuck.  Imagine if you melt a piece of caramel, then let it cool.  Tasty, certainly, but not unctuous and free-flowing, like you need your mac to be.
  • Brie, camembert, robiola, or fresh mozzarella:  some of my favorite eating cheeses.  BUT, a bit too wet to use heavily in a mac.  I have successfully used a tiny bit of robiola in a mac & cheese before, chiefly for the sake of its unique and creamy funk, and that turned out nicely.  Taleggio is another one to use sparingly, if you’re into it.  For these, also do consider your audience and the funk factor:  will they smell it and drool?  Or turn heel and run?
  • Goat cheese – fresh or otherwise:  I am a huge fan of goat’s milk cheese in all its forms, but sadly its grassiness does not translate well in a mac.  Also, fresh chevre is too chalky to melt into anything that will be of use to you.  Note:  if you and lactose aren’t great friends, but you do get along well with goat milk products, there are some that melt nicely, including goat mozzarella and goat gouda.  It will probably work beautifully so long as you and your audience are expecting that nice grassy flavor.

THE MIDDLE GROUND  (Read:  we are best friends with your utility players.  Used alone, our light could shine a bit too bright.  In a group, we bring everyone up to the next level.)

  • Parrano:  a really lovely cross between a parm and a gouda.  Melts nicely and provides a sturdy, nutty flavor that is not overpowering
  • Gruyere:  obviously.  Nutty, deep, a little funky, and melty enough to catapult you to mac happiness.  I will say that domestic gruyeres, in my experience, are a little limp, flavor-wise.  I support any local/domestic product that is just as lovely if not better than the imported version (and most are), but if it’s not amazing, I’m not going to root for it just because it’s local.  If you’re spending the money on gruyere, aim for the Swiss or French ones.
  • Comte:  same as above, though this guy packs a bit more funk, so it goes back to knowing your audience.
  • Cacio/caciocavallo:  sleeper hottie of the mac world.  You may have enjoyed this in cacio e pepe, one of the easiest and most classic pasta dishes ever.  Cacio has a lovely sheepy flavor, is not funky at all, melts gorgeously, and also packs a bit of the nuttiness of a parm or a grana padano.  It’s also relatively inexpensive.  Use with gusto!
  • Semisoft cheeses with truffle:  like sottocenere, or truffled gouda.  Obviously, these are delicious and should be celebrated.  However, with the ubiquity of truffle-related upgrading these days, a truffle mac & cheese is a bit like the printed Coach purses of the 2000s:  too available to be terribly special, and a bit of a gilded lily.  I love this when used thoughtfully and with restraint, and as long as the truffle element doesn’t overpower whatever else I’m eating.  (Though I also maintain that these cheeses are way more transcendent when eaten out of hand anyhow.)
  • White block cheddars from England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, etc:  I do love a good American white cheddar, but the ones from abroad often have a sweetness and nuttiness that, in their American counterparts, tend to show up as more of a one-note tang.  This is totally down to preference, but if you haven’t tried something like Seaside, Dubliner, or the like, it’s worth it.  (Notice I said “block” cheddars – still sort of at the commodity level, but a step up from our standard American yellow ones.)
  • Fontina val D’Aosta:  this is the OG fontina.  There is funk, there is nuttiness, there is creaminess, a bit of mushroom going on, and a good beefy texture.  A little pricey, and a little funky, this is up to your taste, wallet, and audience.

4.  Accessories (like bread crumb toppings, stuff to mix in, and other nota benes)

I am all about a nice crispy topping.  I don’t mind packaged bread crumbs like panko, but I would recommend at least sauteeing them first with some oil and seasoning.  The best bread crumb topping for mac is the one you make yourself from a real loaf of bread.  (Pro tip:  if you don’t normally buy hearth bread, just grab a roll and let it get stale – the quantity should be just fine for a 9×13 pan of mac.)

  • Different bread thoughts:
    • Sourdough
    • French
    • Brioche
    • Avoid anything multigrain or otherwise too dense or dotted with nuts/grains/seeds.  You’re not fooling anyone with a whole grain topping, and it won’t crisp the way you need it to, anyhow.
  • Flavor your business with stuff like:
    • Garlic
    • Mild or hot chilies
    • Fresh herbs
  • Stuff to crisp your breadcrumbs in:
    • Butter
    • Olive oil
    • Duck/goose fat
    • Bacon fat
    • Chili oil
    • Rendered sausage fat (bonus points if you’re using the sausage in the mac)

I also enjoy a good mix-in, provided that it does not take center stage.  Remember, you’re not making a noodle casserole, you’re making mac & cheese.  (Unless you ARE making a noodle casserole, in which case, go nuts and break all the rules.)

  • Any sort of well-broken up sausage is FANTASTIC – gives a bit of texture and meatiness but won’t crash the mac.  Brown and crisp prior to mixing in.  A good rule of thumb is that your sausage chunks should be about half the size, or smaller, of whatever pasta shape you’re using.
    • Italian sausage – hot or mild
    • Lamb sausage like merguez
    • Andouille
    • N’duja – a pork sausage that is a bit harder to find but breaks up beautifully due to a softer texture.  Uses Calabrian spices and so renders some excellent, tasty, bright red-orange fat
    • Chorizo – same as above in terms of brightly-colored rendering
    • Bratwurst (not pre-cooked)
    • Any special housemade sausages from your favorite deli/hometown meat spot
  • Chilies!  Just make sure to mince these finely.  Most folks (I said most!) do not desire to bite into a hunk of chili pepper when diving into a creamy mac.
    • Fresh fresno, serrano, or poblano peppers.
    • Calabrian (cherry) peppers, in a jar
    • Peppadews, also found in a jar
    • Even mild roasted red peppers are nice
  • Well-caramelized onions/shallots/leeks

That is all my very best advice!  No secrets here.  Use one of the points, or use them all – then tell us how it went!

Also, I am probably forgetting some champion pasta shapes, some really good cheeses, and other ideas for tasty additions.  If you have a genius tip you’d like to share, please do so in the comments!

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