Not surprisingly, after the grilled-cheese and tomato soup episode earlier in the week, I was left with several large hunks of cheese. I could have easily enjoyed the cheese, plain or with some autumn apples and wine. But no, the cold weather beckoned something more: another classic of carbs laden with rich, melty cheese. I have nothing against that stuff in the blue box, of which I grew up on-made with lots of love by my Grandma-but there is something magical about homemade mac n'cheese.
My Mom first introduced us to "homemade" mac n'cheese, and has been known for throwing together some pretty wicked cheese sauces with cheese orphans in her fridge (note: she sometimes used the microwave to cook the sauce-roux and all-but this is mac n'cheese, so who cares? As long as it has tons of cheese, noodles and love…you're golden). And yes, Velveeta…that processed, mysterious cheese-like product (of which I distinctly remember not having a defined melting point in a certain food functionality lab a while back…) that lends a creamy, short and slightly sweet element to anything it is put in was sometimes featured in her sauces too.
I opted for gouda, medium-sharp cheddar, baby swiss and pecorino romano melted into a thick béchamel sauce, enriched with an egg to help emulsify. Technically speaking, that describes a child of one of the French mother sauces, Mornay: béchamel sauce, enriched with an egg and cheese. Mixed with large rigatoni noodles, topped with more pecorino and baked until golden, this is a sauce to comfort and warm the soul. If you're feeling cold, then make this-you'll feel instantly happier (not that I am saying you should take your emotions out of food-but this, after all, is an ultimate comfort food). This comes together fast-so no excuses. Especially if you live in Wisconsin, where one has access to a plethora of cheeses, top-quality milks, and where the weather is cold.
If you're not feeding a crowd, scoop the mac n' cheese into individual ramekins or smaller casserole dishes, and bake them off as you want. You want to avoid re-heating, as the sauce will break a touch (even with the addition of an egg)*. You can use any type of pasta that you want, just use something that will cling or hold the sauce: ridge pasta, curly pasta, or the classic elbows. I used rigatoni, because it was what I had on hand. Don't over think it-this stuff will be good no matter what pasta you pick.
*The next day, I had sauce reserved, and scooped this on top before baking my last 2 ramekins. Glorious runny, golden sauce was atop the re-heated mac n' cheese, which lends me to believe that it is the extra moisture, thus moisture migration that results, from the pasta that is the primary factor for a broken, grainy sauce in re-heated mac n' cheese. I recommend reserving some sauce, and doing the same as I did for re-heated portions. It is also pretty fabulous for dipping steamed broccoli in-just a suggestion.
Macaroni and Cheese
Makes 4 generous servings for a stand-alone meal, or up to 6 smaller servings as a side
12-16oz (about 3 to 4 cups) cheese*, grated or diced into small cubes
2 1/2 cups 2% or Whole Milk
4 TB butter, or 2 TB butter and 2 TB olive oil
4 TB flour
1 generous teaspoon mustard powder or prepared dijon mustard
16 oz, or 1 lb pasta (this was about 4 cups of rigatoni, but this will vary with pasta type, and you could certainly eye-ball this with the cheese sauce-pasta ratio when mixing at the end)
Salt and pepper
Sharp knife or cheese grater
Measuring Cups and Spoons
Casserole dish and/or individual ramekins
First, cook the pasta by filling a large pot with water and salting it generously ("until it tastes like the sea"). Cover, and bring to a boil. Add a splash of olive oil to help prevent foaming, and add the pasta. Cook the pasta to al dente ("to the tooth" for the Italian lovers….). You want to keep some of the bite or firmness to the pasta, as it will soak up the sauce. Drain in a colander, and shake-off excess water.
Prepare the sauce: either grate or cut your cheeses into small cubes. The smaller the pieces, the faster they will melt. I am notorious for chunking my cheese into rather large pieces, due to my impeccable impatience.
Next, measure out the 2 1/2 cups of milk. Then, in a medium sized pan, melt the butter and/or heat the olive oil. Add the flour and stir to make the roux. Cook the roux for about 5 minutes on medium heat, string continually with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until slightly golden (your goal is a "blonde" hued roux, if you're feeling french and snobby) and bubbling.
Slowly add the milk you measured out earlier, whisking constantly. Cook, what is now béchamel, the sauce over medium-high heat until thick and bubbling-this will take about 10 minutes. Stir constantly, and be careful to not scorch it. I prefer a whisk to stir the sauce, as it allows me to get the bottom and the "corners" of the pan. When the sauce is thickened, remove from heat, and stir in the cheese. Allow the sauce to sit a moment to melt the cheese.
While the sauce (what is now a mornay sauce, with the addition of the cheese) is sitting, crack an egg into a medium-sized bowl, and whisk it vigorously to combine the yolk and the white. Now, stir in the cheese with the sauce. If cheese is not completely melted, return to the heat for a moment, and stir until you have a homogenous sauce (but some chunks are not an issue, if you are impatient like me). Using a coffee cup or measuring cup, transfer about 1/2 cup of the hot cheese sauce to the beaten egg, whisking constantly to prevent curdling. Pour the egg-sauce mixture into the rest of the sauce, and heat until bubbling over medium heat, stirring constantly, to cook the egg (food safety geeks: cook to 160F to kill salmonella). Off the heat, and stir in the mustard, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Taste, and adjust for seasoning.
Add the sauce to the pasta-using the large pot that you cooked the pasta in. I add in a generous half of the sauce, and see how the proportion of sauce-to-pasta is. If you want it more saucy, add more sauce. Reserve remaining sauce, if desired, for reheating portions.
Divide or pour the mac n' cheese into whatever serving dishes that you like-be sure to use oven-safe if baking dishes.
I love individual ramekins…Top with extra cheese of your liking, and bake in a 350F oven until bubbling and browned on top, about 15 minutes. Serve immediately. My favorite side with this stuff is broccoli….classic! Enjoy!