I've recently discovered the secrets to a really good mac and cheese, and I can't believe it's taken me this long in life. These simple steps will take your mac and cheese game to at least a 10. Over the years, I've tried to figure out what I like and don't like about mac and cheese. I am firmly in the no breadcrumbs category. I prefer a very cheesy almost soupy consistency to my sauce. The noodles need to be firm and not mushy. And I need a bit of a bite to the cheese sauce.
Translating those like and dislikes into a recipe has taken some time. Anyone can throw together a mac and cheese - butter, flour, milk, cheese, and noodles - but it's the attention to the details that really matter. For example, it is really important not to overcook your noodles. You need to boil them until they are slightly tender but still firm. I always make this mistake. I leave them in the water for too long because I always convince myself that they couldn't possibly continue cooking to perfection in the oven. Trust me, they will.
I've never quite figured out a good sauce to noodle ratio. I always cook way too many noodles, and then not enough sauce, and after baking most of the cheese gets absorbed and you are left with a chewy texture. You really want your noodles to be swimming in cheese sauce when you put them in the oven. Again, this is something that I always do wrong.
And finally, it's all about the cheese. You need a really good cheese. Something bold with a lot of flavors. Mac and cheese is a relatively bland dish, so unless you are using spices and such, most of the flavor should come from the cheese. And if you really want to up your game, you will brown your butter adding deep and rich caramel flavors.
Occasionally, I like to switch things up and add a handful of chopped tomatoes. While cooking, the juices and flavors from the tomatoes leach out into the cheese and add a really nice balance. Sebastian prefers his mac and cheese sans tomatoes, but at this stage in the game, I try not to tailor our meals to his picky toddler preferences, because I feel like this is just setting a bad precedence. You should see how mad he gets when I tell him were having pizza, and I serve it on the Trader Joes cauliflower crust. There's no fooling that boy.
BROWN BUTTER MAC AND CHEESE WITH TOMATOES
prep time: 20 minutes
cooking time: 30 minutes
2 cups dry ziti pasta
3 tbsp unsalted butter
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 cup chopped tomatoes
Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cook the pasta until al dente.
Place the butter into a medium saucepan on medium heat.The butter will melt and then begin to foam. Gently swirl the pan a few times. Once the butter begins to turn light brown in color, add the flour and combine with a whisk. Let the mixture foam slightly, and then pour the milk, a little at a time, whisking constantly. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the milk thickens - whisking constantly.
Add the shredded cheese, salt, and pepper to the milk and combine. Remove from the heat when the cheese has melted.
Add the tomatoes, drained pasta, and cheese sauce to a 9x11 inch casserole dish or something similar in size. Toss.
Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Serve warm.