We’ve all grown up with them: The little Kraft Dinner boxes with tiny macaroni and that toxic orange powder that could somehow choke you relentlessly when you accidentally inhaled it, yet was deliciously addicting when mixed with warm butter and milk. Those little packs were the signature of moms-on-the-go everywhere, and who could blame them? They were freaking delicious. Personally, I loved adding a can of tuna and some green beans to my mac and cheese, a habit I took with me to college whenever I needed a quick meal. I guess taste buds mature at different rates.
Sadly, at some point my taste buds did catch up with my growth in other areas, and I began to expect something more out of my macaroni and cheese. There is so much potential present with the noble noodle, and that’s what we’re all about on this blog: recognizing the potential of different foods. I just decided that’s the direction the blog will take. Join me, let’s go on this journey together readers.
Unfortunately, you can’t just peel off a few slices of American cheese and lay them on top of warm noodles. I suppose in theory you could, but that meal turns into a pretty depressing illustration of college life quite fast. I don’t make these rules, and you can eat what you want, but a little bit of prep work goes a long way to make a creamy, consistent, and incredibly delicious cheese sauce to accompany your macaroni.
I’ve found the easiest way to start with a white sauce and work in a cheese of your choice. White sauces are easy to master, and almost necessary for any kitchen as they act as a base for a number of sauces in culinary delights across multiple continents. White sauce is just that-a white sauce. I’ll explain the boring proportion/ingredients portion, then let you in on a few secrets I’ve found over the years:
2 TBSP Butter
2 TBSP Flour
1 Cup Milk
1/4 TSP Salt
1/8 TSP Ground Black Pepper
You can also add a quarter of a minced onion, a few cloves, and a bay leaf, but I honestly don’t see the point. This, as a base, is a hearty sauce. You start by making a roux, or a thickening agent of equal parts butter and flour. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan, add flour, and cook it over medium low heat while stirring constantly. What you want to do is cook the flour without browning the butter. If your pan starts getting too hot and you fear the butter may be close to browning, pull the pan off the butter for a minute or two. After cooking for a few minutes, you gently pour the milk into the saucepan and kick up the heat to medium, while still stirring. Bring the milk to a boil, still stirring, and as the sauce begins to thicken add your salt and pepper. Bam, you have white sauce.
Now, a few things to note. The roux will determine how thick your final sauce is. Two tablespoons of butter and the same of flour will make a perfectly workable sauce, but when I’m adding an already thick cheese to the sauce, I prefer to leave it slightly runnier. Therefore, when I’m adding Cheese, I typically use one and a half tablespoons of each instead of two. Also, if you take the extra step of scalding the milk – that is, bringing it almost to a boil – before adding it to your roux, you will decrease the tragedy of a lumpy sauce. It does dirty an extra pan, but in the interest of making things loads easier, it’s worth it.
Once you have your white sauce base at your preferred thickness, you are ready to add the cheese. Mornay sauce typically consists of adding Gruyere and Parmesan cheese, or you can go the route of cheddar for a real crowd pleaser. Either way, I normally prefer overdoing it. Most recipes suggest adding half a cup of grated cheese at this point, I typically double that. My preferred portions are actually ¾ Cup Cheddar and ¼ Cup Parmesan. While your sauce is still piping hot, stir in:
Grated Cheese of your choice
A few quick grates of a Nutmeg
A dash of Cayenne
The nutmeg will add some delicacy to this hearty sauce, and the cayenne will add some spice to contrast with the tanginess of the cheese. Once your cheese is fully melted and incorporated in the white sauce, go ahead and put a lid on your pan and set it to the side. You’ve made a fantastic addition any noodle would be proud to accompany.
Speaking of noodles, you can do whatever you want. We’ll tackle homemade pasta sometime in the hopefully distant future, but the reality is there are a variety of fantastic pasta products out there. I would only recommend that you don’t get the cheapest stuff you can find, as it can go from perfectly al dente to mushy in seconds. You could also use Gnocchi if you’re feeling adventurous, and if you’re not watching calories you can finish your Gnocchi and brown it up so it’s nice and crisp in a skillet with butter and sage. We all know how awesome butter is, right?
For this experiment, I used some big and thick shells that, I must admit, hold a great amount of cheese sauce. Yummy. Homemade macaroni and cheese is easy to customize and responds wonderfully to experimentation, so have a ball! Your imagination is only limited by the variety of cheeses at your local grocery store.