It’s Labor Day.
I know, I should be focused on savoring the last of the good summer tomatoes and Silver Queen corn-on-the-cob. But weeks ago, during a string of 100-degree days, my belly’s compass inexplicably started pointing towards comfort foods – pot pie, homemade bread, maple-oatmeal scones and big mugs of chai. And once you start dreaming of big, bubbly dishes of soul-hugging macaroni and cheese, an arugula salad just won’t cut it.
So, here I am, standing here with ANOTHER recipe for macaroni and cheese, asking you to love it. Like Julia Roberts in “Notting Hill,” but with pasta.
What makes this recipe different from the others we’ve tried, like Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s Mac and Cheese, Ina Garten’s Grown Up Mac and Cheese and an Italian Mac and Cheese with fontina? You won’t find any breadcrumbs, pork or well-meaning vegetables in this version. It’s straight-up pasta and cheese.
For me, a good macaroni and cheese needs to have a strong cheddar taste, a creamy texture and elbow macaroni. So I started with three cheeses: an extra-sharp cheddar, Monterey Jack and Parmesan. The Parmesan is there to add a little complexity and brighten things up, like putting a cherry on top of a sundae, but if you’ve got some other cheese hanging around in your fridge, by all means, make the substitution.
The creaminess comes from taking these cheeses and making a cheese sauce. You start by making a roux, which is just equal amounts of butter and flour cooked together, and then you slowly add warm milk, bringing it to a boil so that the mixture thickens. Then you take the pan off the heat, and add the flavor – the mixed cheeses, plus ground mustard and maybe some cayenne for punch, minced garlic for savoriness, salt, pepper and the tiniest bit of nutmeg.
I like my macaroni and cheese to be golden brown on top and creamy on the bottom, so I bake it in the top-third of the oven for about 25 minutes. That usually gives it enough time for the top to be bubbly but the rest to be a little jiggly and unset.
You could serve it as a side, but I like to eat it by itself, preferably out of a big mug, so that I can properly focus on the cheesy creaminess of every bite.
Can’t say the same about arugula.
Macaroni and Cheese
From Rebecca Crump (EzraPoundCake.com)
Serves 3 to 4 as a main course
- 1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) grated extra-sharp cheddar
- 1 cup (4 ounces) grated Monterey Jack
- 1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated Parmesan or Gruyere
- 2 1/2 cups milk
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for the dish
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon ground mustard
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon minced garlic (optional)
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- Dash of cayenne
- 1/2 pound (8 ounces) elbow macaroni
- Hot sauce (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Set a baking rack in the top-third of the oven. Butter a 1 1/2 quart casserole dish (or an 8″-by-8″ baking dish). Set aside.
- Combine the cheddar, Monterey Jack and Gruyere cheeses in a medium bowl. Transfer 1 cup of cheese to a small bowl; reserve for topping.
- In a medium saucepan, warm the milk over medium heat.
- In a Dutch oven or saucepan set over low heat, melt the butter. Add flour immediately; whisk to combine for about 1 minute. Raise the temperature to medium, and slowly whisk in the milk. Bring it to a boil to thicken, whisking the entire time. (You might need to raise the temperature slightly to get things going.)
- Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the mustard, salt, garlic, pepper, nutmeg, cayenne and the 2 cups of mixed cheeses (from the larger bowl). Set the cheese sauce aside.
- Fill a large saucepan with water, and bring it to a boil over high heat. Add macaroni. Return the water to a boil, and cook for about 10 minutes. Drain well, and add pasta to the cheese sauce. Stir to combine. Taste, adjust the seasonings, and add hot sauce, if you wish.
- Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish. Top with reserved cheese, and bake in the top-third of the oven for about 25 minutes, until the top is golden brown and bubbly, but the inside is still creamy.