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Fear Conquered: Real Mac and Cheese
The $0.99 boxed generic macaroni and cheese is simply the best.
I'm confessing this up front because it is so easy to make, deliciously creamy, insanely cheese-flavored and it's so cheap to make. Not to mention, I could eat a whole box of store-bought macaroni and cheese every day for lunch (if I loved my body just a little bit less). Never mind that the cheese is some kind of neon-orange powder. Never mind preservatives and stabilizers.
Sometimes I just crave that little blue-box. Maybe because boxed macaroni and cheese was a treat growing up. My parents didn't typically buy the stuff - and when they did, my dad liked to "stretch" the sauce by mixing in extra milk and extra pasta. So now as an adult, a little part of me still clings to those precious rectangular boxes of cheesy-easy. Without the stretching and a whole box just for me.
Yet from the moment I started cooking, it has been my dream to develop a from-scratch homemade macaroni and cheese rivaling the little blue box. And if you're waiting for me to tell you that this recipe holds the key, sorry. You can’t beat preprocessed, powdered cheese laced with stabilizers. It simply can’t be done.
But… I think there’s a place for the homemade variety. Because some of us refuse to eat the boxed stuff. Some of us start to cringe at the thought of all that artificial, over-processed, pulverized ingredients. And that’s where this recipe comes to the rescue. It doesn't taste at all like the boxed variety, it's not cheap and it definitely is not as easy. But for all the right reasons, this is what you should be craving.
While it's nothing like boxed macaroni and cheese, it IS deliciously cheesy, made with real grated cheese and wonderfully hearty enough to feed at least six people from one pot. Even better, this mac and cheese can double as both an ultra-creamy stove-top version or a molten, crusty baked mac and cheese sizzling from the oven.
Forget about the little blue box just once and give real mac and cheese a try. It’s not the same but with a little time, you may be able to kick the box entirely.
STORY | PRINTABLE RECIPE | HUNGRY FOR TIPS?
|Combine the milk and cream in a small pot or microwave-safe dish and heat the milk on the stove or in the microwave until just below the boiling point.|
|While the milk heats, melt the butter in a large sauce pan over medium heat.|
|While the butter melts, mince 2 cloves of garlic and add to a mortar.|
|Add 1 teaspoon of salt to the garlic.|
|Mash the garlic and salt into a smooth paste with the pestle.|
|Once the butter is melted, whisk in 3 Tablespoons of flour.|
|Continue to cook the roux for 5 minutes until it thickens and darkens in color.|
|Meanwhile, grate the cheddar and jack cheeses.|
|Grate or grind the parmesan cheese (I use a food processor fitted with the steel blade).|
|You will need an 8 ounce tub of mascarpone cheese.|
|Add the mascarpone and garlic paste to the roux.|
|Whisk together and continue to cook until the sauce is mostly smooth.|
|Meanwhile, begin cooking the pasta shells according to the package directions. Be sure to salt the pasta water.|
|Whisk in the hot milk/cream, paprika, mustard powder, cracked black pepper and vinegar. Continue to cook and whisk the sauce until it thickens, about 5 minutes.|
|Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir in the grated parmesan cheese.|
|Stir in the grated jack cheese.|
|Turn off the heat and stir in the cheddar cheese. Continue to stir until the sauce is mostly smooth.|
|Add the cooked and drained pasta to the cheese sauce. Stir until the pasta is evenly coated.|
|If making the baked version, preheat the oven to 425F and transfer the mac and cheese to a shallow baking dish.|
|Sprinkle the panko crumbs and reserved parmesan cheese over the mac and cheese.|
|Bake the mac and cheese for 15-20 minutes until the panko is crispy.|
|If making the stove-top version, serve the creamy mac and cheese immediately - do not cool and reheat.|
|Serve the baked mac and cheese immediately from the oven. Best if not re-warmed.|
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Homemade Mac and Cheese
Prep Time: 45 min
Cook Time: 15 min
Ingredients (serves 6)
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 Tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
- 8 ounces mascarpone cheese
- 1 teaspoon ground mustard powder
- 1/4 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
- 1 Tablespoon cider vinegar
- 4 ounces parmesan cheese, freshly grated
- 4 ounces Monterey jack cheese, grated
- 8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
- 1 pound box dry medium pasta shells, cooked according to package directions
- 1/2 cup toasted bread crumbs (or Panko crumbs)
- 2 ounces parmesan cheese, freshly grated
- Heat the milk and heavy cream in a small pot until just below the boiling point
- Meanwhile, heat the butter over medium heat in a large pot and mash the garlic and salt together with a mortar and pestle
- Whisk the flour into the melted butter and cook the roux for 5 minutes; stir in the garlic paste and mascarpone until smooth and creamy
- Whisk in the milk/cream mixture, mustard powder, paprika, pepper and vinegar; cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the sauce thickens
- Reduce the heat to medium-low heat and gradually add the parmesan and jack cheese; turn off the heat and add the cheddar cheese, stirring the sauce until smooth
- Add the cooked pasta to the sauce and combine; serve immediately as a creamy stove-top mac and cheese
- Preheat the oven to 425℉; transfer the mac and cheese to a shallow baking dish; sprinkle with toasted breadcrumbs (or panko crumbs) and parmesan cheese and bake uncovered for 15-20 minutes until the breadcrumbs are toasted
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Hungry for Tips?
- Make in Advance: You can make the baked version in advance - just don’t bake it until you’re ready to serve. If you save it in your refrigerator for another day, allow it to warm at room temperature for 3 hours before baking in the oven. Otherwise, you will likely end up with pools of oil seeping out from stringy bits of cheese. That's just the nature of REAL cheese - it doesn't appreciate rapid (and repeated) heating and cooling.
- Separation: You know what it looks like - pools of oil seeping out from curdled cheese. There's a great deal of science behind why this happens, but there are also a couple of methods for preventing it. You can add a highly processed cheese product like Velveeta which will stabilize the sauce and hold it together. You can also use cream cheese (such as mascarpone), a roux, mustard powder or an acid (like vinegar). These components help stabilize the sauce and prevent separation while baking.
- One-Pot Version: Select a large oven-safe pot (I use my enameled cast-iron dutch oven). Cook the pasta in your selected pot, drain in a colander and stir in a couple pats of butter (this keeps the pasta from sticking together while it cools). Made the cheese sauce using the same pot used for cooking the pasta. Rather than heating the milk separately, just add the milk more slowly. When the cheese sauce is ready, add in the cooled pasta and mix thoroughly before serving. Follow the baking instructions if desired.
- Pasta: I love the size, shape and texture of pasta shells, but don't run out and buy it for this recipe if you've got macaroni. In fact, macaroni will interlock better than shells and you may actually prefer the final result. Plus, you can often find healthier varieties of macaroni pasta - like fiber-enriched or whole wheat.
- Bread Crumbs: I’ve used homemade bread crumbs but I prefer using panko crumbs for the baked version. They’re just so much more crispy. And that’s my favorite part of the baked version. However, if you don’t have panko on hand, a couple slices of bread ground into great crumbs does the trick.
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