Friday, November 18, 2011

Improvin' The Groovin': Thoughts on Macaroni and Cheese

Chewy, cheesy, gooey goodness.

     Macaroni and cheese, hereafter referred to as mac&cheese, is a classic that they say Jefferson brought home from France.  Considering what the French refer to as cheese, it was probably glad to go. All brie-jokes aside, did I mention that I hate brie?, the intervening centuries have made m&c a truly American dish.  There are as many ways to make it as there are cheeses to include in it. There are shells, elbows and rotini. You can put tomato in or mushrooms or meatballs or pepperoni. All of which, by definition, are not macaroni and cheese and therefore we won't be discussing today.

     One of my favorite mac&cheese recipes, before I developed my own, was from Patti La Belle's first cookbook: here. My oldest son's mother, a good cook in her own right, took that recipe, added her own touches and made it even better. So, when we were on speaking terms around the holidays, I didn't need to make it myself, just put in a request so to speak. Good while it lasted, but it didn't last long. And then I was on my own. Sure did miss that mac and cheese....

     In my experience, there are two major schools of thought when it comes to baked mac&cheese. (That stove top, store bought boxed crap isn't a school, it's a remedial class.)  School one is the custard school, where eggs and milk or cream are mixed with cooked noodles and cubed or shredded cheese then baked. School numero B is the sauce school, where a Mornay Sauce is mixed with cooked noodles, then baked. Each has it's merits and it's adherents.

     Most of the people that I know are members of the custard tribe. My grandmother was, my wife's grandmother was, even that aforementioned Patti La Belle-inspired recipe was just an over the top 6-cheese version of the same thing. And that is fine. Most likely, when most people think of mac&cheese, this is what they think of. For me, the best thing about this style is it's stability/slicability as contrasted with the Mornay style. (More on that later.) That makes portion control easier, for those counting calories; for everyone else, it makes deep-fried mac&cheese possible. You also get the deeper, toasty flavors of cooked cheese this way. The only drawback is that, for all gains made in stability and depth of flavor, the custard just doesn't carry that creamy cheesiness that stove-top mac&cheese struts in your face like the tawdry side dish it is.

     To maximize gooey, melty cheesiness, a Mornay sauce is the way to go. Every bite is full of that rich, cheesy goodness that keeps those Kraft blue boxes flying off the shelves. This style is luscious and creamy, with a rich sauce surrounding some very happy noodles, eminently spoon-able. This is not my Grandmother's mac&cheese. And that's not surprising. It's the whole roux-milk process. I can only imagine the look on Alice Martin's face if, while she was busy making cake, pies, veg and whatever else she had going on, I had ever asked her "Hey Gramma, when you gonna hook up that Mornay sauce? Did you get the Bechamel started yet, Slacker?" I can only hope that I would have been back on solid foods before X-mas vacation was over.      

     Anywho, I see no reason why I should have to miss out on creaminess just to get deep, toasty cheesiness. Or why I should trade luxuriousness for stability. So, I don't. My recipe is a combination of the two, combing baked cheese flavor with the smoothness of a Mornay. I also add brown mustard which I feel adds subtle counterpoint to the richness of the dish. I also don't recommend using more than 4 cheeses. I mean Patti's original recipe has 5 cheeses (Velveeta is only a "cheese" in the most loose definition of the word, so I don't count it). At that point, any definitive quality a certain cheese might add is lost to the general dairy background. General Dairy...sounds like an 80's farm-based action figure. Anyway, I recommend a 4 cheese mix that I feel balances the overall end result: Extra-Sharp Cheddar, Mozzarella, Monterrey Jack and Parmesan. The Cheddar is classic and it's sharpness makes it stand out. The Mozzarella is creamy and adds gooey strechiness and mouthfeel. The MJ melts smoothly and provides a mild background. And the Parmesan gives a salty, chewy finish.

     My recipe is posted for your experimentation. Enjoy.

Cheesy, gooey, chewy goodness.  Dig it.


  1. Solomon, from one writer to another, this is well composed. I read a lot of blogs, edit books and am writing a book. You have something special here. I hope that you decide to continue to develop it. Your delivery is fluid and comfortable/accessible tone and a cursory historical context is included that will connect with the reader or wanna-be chef. Regular folks will follow your blog. Go to other cooking blogs. Leave comments and leave your blog address at the end of the comments. Exposure. Because you really have what it takes to help some of us who are culinarily impaired. :)

  2. Your praise and advice are both well received. Know that your questions about my "food philosophy" helped to kindle these ideas. Thank you!