The chef in my house is most definitely not me. If it weren’t for my dude, I’d never eat. He likes to say that I lived like “an unsupervised eight-year-old” before we met. This is technically true -- a typical dinner for me was always one of two things: some sort of chips or my mom’s homemade macaroni and cheese.
I like to think that I am something of a macaroni & cheese aficionado -- and the very best mac in the city of Los Angeles is at Lola’s on Fairfax Avenue. (Have it with an apple martini for the most indulgent meal of your life!) My #2 mac in town is at Pete’s Café in downtown LA -- I took McCombs there when she came to visit in March.
I am a very staunch mac & cheese purist -- I tolerate zero variations from the way I was taught to make it. My dude makes his all fancy like, using bread crumbs and 3 different kinds of cheese, but what I am about to suggest is the classic, gooey, mom-style favorite. I get asked to make it for potlucks and parties all the time. I also make it when I had a particularly hard day at work and just need some simple comfort food. If you are lactose intolerant or at all concerned about calories and fat, do yourself a favor and click away this very instant!
The first thing you’ll need is a good sized pot. I swear by my 5.5 quart round Le Creuset French oven. It was a gift from my parents when I finally got my own apartment, which was AHEM several hundred years ago now, and it has lasted and lasted and lasted. They can be quite pricey, but if you live near a Le Creuset outlet, you are in luck. I’ve also randomly seen them at Marshall’s, T.J. Maxx, and Tuesday Morning! So keep an eye peeled for deals. (Yes, you can make this mac & cheese in any old pot, but the beauty of the Le Creuset will reveal itself later.)
Bring about 4 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Be sure to add a teaspoon of salt to the water, and put the lid on if you want it to boil faster. DO NOT forget to salt the water! It's one of the cornerstones of making great noodles. (Side note: A watched pot never boils.) Once you've got the water boiling like you want it, dump in a 12-16 oz bag of large macaroni shells. Not elbows, not bowties, not wagon wheels. You want shells, as they make neat little pockets that the cheese sauce oozes itself into, creating a terrific, tasty, gooey mess.
While the shells are cooking, get out the rest of your ingredients: 2 cups of 2% milk, 12-14 oz of shredded sharp cheddar cheese, a stick (1/2 cup) of salted butter, and about 5 tablespoons of some very finely sifted flour. (I use Gold Medal's Wondra flour, which instantly dissolves in water, making it far less likely to clump than regular all-purpose flour.)
The proper cooking time for macaroni shells is somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 minutes. Use a fork to keep checking your noodles past the 9-minute mark. You should remove them when they are al dente, which literally means "to the tooth." Your shells should not be hard, and not totally floppy either. They should give the slightest resistance to the bite while still being cooked all the way through. Once your noodles are done, dump them into a colander and set them aside for the time being. It's time to make your sauce.
The basis of this mac & cheese recipe is a good blonde Italian roux. It contains only 2 ingredients -- butter and flour. To make it, return the pot you just cooked your noodles in to the stove. Reduce the heat to low and add a stick (1/2 cup) of butter to the pot. Allow it to melt, taking care not to let it brown. Sprinkle 5 tablespoons of flour into the melted butter, paying close attention to the color -- it should remain white. Stir the flour into the butter until it achieves a foamy "whipped" consistency.
This is where the Le Creuset pot really shows its value -- the enameled cast iron distributes heat extremely evenly without scorching, something that is very hard to do in a flimsy pan. I am also a big fan of Todd English's Green Pans, which are available on the ridiculous Home Shopping Network! (That's HSN to those in the know.)
Once the roux has achieved a uniform consistency, dump your noodles back into the pot and coat them with the roux mixture. Next, add 2/3 cup of milk to the noodles, and dump in your cheese -- I start off with an 8 oz bag, adding more as I go. Once it starts to melt, I add more milk (about 1 1/3 cups) and cheese until the sauce gets to my desired consistency. You should always add a little more milk than you think is necessary -- as the creamier the mixture, the better the taste. (In the end, you will have used roughly 14 oz of cheese and a good 2 cups of milk.)
Your finished product should look something like this:
Don't worry if it looks slightly runny as soon as you are done -- the cheese and flour will thicken as it sits, so you'd rather have it more runny than firm. (I also think it tastes better after it sits for 10 minutes!)
This homemade concoction is far creamier than anything the "blue box" could dish up. If you've salted the water correctly and used salted butter in your roux, you shouldn't need to add any more than a mini-pinch of additional salt before serving.
When heating up leftover macaroni that's been chilling in the fridge, put it in a pot on the stove on low-medium heat and "re-animate" the cheese sauce by stirring in a little extra milk. You can't go wrong -- and trust me when I say that leftover mac & cheese is the breakfast of champions.
If you are gluten-intolerant, a great substitute for regular semolina flour noodles are brown rice noodles. (I like the penne ones.) But be extremely aware of overcooking rice pasta -- it's best to begin checking it at the 6 minute mark. Also, be sure to rinse the cooked noodles thoroughly in cool water after draining -- far too much starch stays on rice noodles after cooking, and this will bind your cheese sauce too tightly.
You can substitute cornstarch for the flour in the roux -- just be aware that cornstarch thickens much quicker than flour, so add only half as much as the recipe calls for. Don't make the same mistake I did when testing out macaroni recipes on my gluten-free friend -- I substituted peanut flour for regular flour, resulting in a peanut butter flavored macaroni and cheese that we still laugh about to this day.
I'm on Twitter: @IveyAlison.