mmm… macaroni and cheese. I’ve given up the boxed stuff for homemade.
I recently scored a kilo of cheddar cheese from a friend who had been shopping at the nearby Costco in Saitama. A large amount of cheddar is quite the find in Japan, where the cheese is usually sold in 100 to 200 gram chunks for much too much money. So what did I do with my cheesy booty? I made macaroni and cheese, of course.
I grew up in a healthy household where things like macaroni and cheese or meatloaf were never seen on the family dinner table. Don’t get me wrong, my mom’s a great cook, but casserole is just not her thing. I think this deprivation has contributed to my love of noodles blanketed with creamy cheese sauce. I could definitely relate to Julia Moskin’s account of her search for the ultimate mac-and-cheese recipe. While many of my friends swear by the blue box, I never came around to the soft, falling apart noodles and runny sauce that didn’t quite taste like cheese. I do admit that I used to have quite a habit for Annie’s shells and cheese though. But that was before I discovered that I could make my own.
I had previously made and enjoyed the creamy mac and cheese from Ms. Moskin’s article, but cottage cheese is another one of those rare finds in Japan, so I decided to forgo that recipe and use a bechamel based cheese sauce instead (Although Ms. Moskin disdains white sauce, I’ve got no problems with it). A search of my favorite food sections turned up recommendations for Martha Stewart’s recipe and Mitchell Davis’s recipe from Kitchen Sense. Both sounded tempting and the technique was similar. I went for Davis’s “ultimate” recipe in the end.
I reduced the recipe by half so that I could fit it into my 9 x 9 pan (the version below is the full batch). I was a little disappointed at first that the layer of noodles and cheese was so thin, but then I realized that that just meant more crusty goodness. Not to mention that splitting the full recipe between two people (even if it took a few days to finish) would probably be deleterious to our health. Another life-in-Japan-friendly substitution that I made was for the Worcestershire sauce. Although I can buy it at my Clas:D market, I didn’t want another bottle taking up the precious space in my tiny fridge, so I mixed up a fairly convincing substitute from balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, and fish sauce. Maybe I wouldn’t put it on a steak, but in the cheese sauce no one will ever know the difference.
The verdict? Pretty good. But I’ve still got some cheese left so I might just have to try Ms. Martha’s recipe too.
The Ultimate Macaroni and Cheese
From “Kitchen Sense” by Mitchell Davis
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons unseasoned bread crumbs, divided
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, or other strongly flavored imported grating cheese (about 4 ounces)
1 pound curly pasta, such as elbow macaroni, cavatappi, fusilli, or similar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard or 1/2 teaspoon dry, powdered mustard
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Pinch cayenne pepper
Pinch freshly ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
8 ounces cream cheese
8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (2 cups)
8 ounces extra-aged gouda, wax removed, or aged Swiss Emmanthaller, shredded (2 cups)
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Using 1 tablespoon of the butter, grease a 2-quart baking dish. Place 2 tablespoons of the bread crumbs in the buttered dish and shake it around to evenly coat. Leave any excess bread crumbs in the bottom of the baking dish. Combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of bread crumbs with 2 tablespoons of the Parmigiano or other grating cheese, and set aside.
In a very large pot, cook the pasta in a generous amount (about 5 quarts) of boiling salted water until al dente, not more, about 8 minutes. Drain.
Meanwhile, make the sauce. In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, heat 3 tablespoons of the butter. When the butter is melted, add the flour and stir, with a wooden spoon, to make a paste (this is called a roux). Cook the roux a minute or two, stirring often, until it has very lightly browned and you can smell toasted flour. Switch to a whisk. Pour in the milk and continue whisking until the mixture comes to a boil and thickens, about 4 minutes. Turn down the heat to low. Whisk in the mustard, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne, white pepper, and salt. Add the cream cheese and stir until thoroughly melted.
Place the pasta back in the pot it was cooked in. Add the Cheddar, Gouda, and the remaining Parmigiano. Pour the hot cream sauce on top. Stir the mixture until all the cheese is melted and the sauce is well combined with the noodles. (If you are in a hurry to eat, you can actually serve the macaroni and cheese at this point; but I prefer it baked.) Transfer this mixture to the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle the bread crumb and Parmigiano mixture evenly over the top. Dot with the remaining tablespoon of butter. Bake in the preheated oven about 40 minutes, until the top is nicely browned, the bread crumbs are toasted, and the sauce is bubbling.