This one is for Kim, my other lobe! I do a mac and cheese for Thanksgiving every year and it truly satisfies all walks, meat eaters, ketchup lovers and vegetarians! I have been doing it for so long by taste, touch and site, I had never really written it down, but my family will be thankful today, since I decided it was time to write the recipe and the best way is to make it and measure as I go along, So here goes!
CHEESY MAC 'N CHEESE
1 1/2 pound of macaroni noodles (6 cups dry)
1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick)
1/4 cup flour
4 cups liquid, I like 1 heavy cream and 3 of whole milk
1/4 tsp pepper ( I prefer white pepper only because it doesn't show in the sauce)
1/2 tsp dry mustard
1 tsp nutmeg preferably fresh grated
8 cups cheese of your choice
optional bread crumbs (or toasted bread cut up in small croutons)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
Prepare the macaroni according to the package directions, but be sure to err on the side of al dente or just under fully done, it will be recooked when the mac and cheese is baked and you don't want it to be a mushy noodle. Strain and set aside. In a large pot, I like to use a small stock pot, melt the butter over med high heat, when it is just about melted , add the flour and turn down to medium and use a whisk to mix together, it should be a bit more liquid then a paste. The key is to cook the floury taste out of the flour and get a little color, the technical term here is we are making a roux, a light one. It should be the color of lightly toasted white bread. At this point I add one cup of the liquid, whisking the whole time. It will start to thicken and as soon as that one cup is incorporated, add the rest of the liquid and whisk, whisk, whisk. You know the thing I think that is missing in cook books are instructions that we can relate to if we have never done anything like this in our life, or the "why" of what we are asked to do. So I am trying to make sure I give those explanations. Why you whisk is you don't want it to burn on the bottom of the pan, and milk products will scald and it is not an attractive flavor for mac and cheese, BUT you must bring the mixture to a boil or it won't thicken properly, so it is important to give this mixture your full attention. The technical term of this sauce is a bechamel and it is a mother sauce, used often as a base to create other sauces just like the one we are making. Once it is bubbly and thickened, turn the heat to low, keep that whisk handy, and add in the spices, whisking after each addition. Make sure it is fully mixed and turn off the heat. Add your cheese and now you want to stir with a wooden spoon or a rubber spatula works well. Stir to make sure everything is incorporated. It will be thick and cheesy.
I like to add the noodles to my pot, but if your pot isn't large enough, put your noodles in your casserole dish and pour the cheese sauce over. Either way, mix the noodles with the sauce well and get into your casserole dish.
As far as the baking process goes, it is 375 degrees for about 40 minutes, covered with foil for 20 minutes and uncover for that last 20. Cook until bubbly and lightly browned.
Lets chat about cheese. There are many choices you can make. and 8 cups can give you so many choices of combinations. My combination of choice goes like this. I like a Gruyère for its nutty flavor, fontina for its creaminess, monterey jack for the melty, sharpness, a sharp cheddar for its nutty, sharp flavor, romano for the sweetness and the Parmesan for the salty nutty flavor. I use the first 5 for the cheese sauce and the last for the top. However, I have done many different cheeses. When I am doing this for a kid party, I use cheddar, mozzarella and Velveeta cheese. Sometimes I do a lower calorie version so I use the shredded lowfat cheeses.
A couple of notes. You notice I added no salt in this recipe. I am a firm believer in tasting, the problem is you can taste this thing all along, but the Parmesan is pretty salty so I am concerned about telling anyone to salt, but here is the thing, I salt the bechamel before adding the cheese. I add about a tsp of kosher salt. If you taste the sauce before the salt and then after, you will see how the salt accentuates all the spices you added, however, it is really easy to over salt so IF you decide to try to add salt at this point, maybe go 1/2 tsp or even a 1/4 and as you go along and make this recipe again you will know it was too much or not enough.
My final note is the additions you could make if you really wanted to. To the point that the sauce is the cheese sauce, you could add green chiles, bell pepper and/or some of your favorite salsa for a spicy southwestern kick, also sub in some pepper jack cheese for some or all of the cheese.. You could saute ham or pancetta and add that to the cheese sauce for really unique flavor. You can really cut back on calories and substitute some of the liquids for chicken stock. Add some fresh herbs to the bread crumbs for a really fresh take. The bottom line is don't be afraid of trying new things. It is only food, doesn't work out, do it a different way next time. No one is perfect and no one does it perfect every time, so trust you instincts, and make sure you are tasting as you go. Remember, strong flavors, like salt, pepper, mustard, they can all get a little stronger with heat, so be sparing, you can always add after cooking.
Give it a try and let me know how it is goes! Good eating!