My food weakness without question is cheese. I cannot resist cheese of any kind – from the delectably mild, creamy and soft, to the pungent, hard or crumbly varieties. If I were stuck on that proverbial island, it would be the one food that I could happily live on the rest of my life. (Since this is a fantastical situation, there would be none of the notorious gastronomical consequences from this exclusive lactic diet.) Stranded, I would, however, miss (and, frankly, obsess about) macaroni and cheese. In my opinion, it’s practically a food group and is one of the few dishes that I dream about on a regular basis. I’m not talking about the processed day-glow stuff from the blue box that we all grew up on, but the real deal: elbow macaroni that’s cooked perfectly al dente, bathed in just the right amount of luxurious cheesiness and baked until the crumble topping is crunchy and golden brown. It’s my idea of paradise and I could swim in it.
The ancestry of this all-American comfort food has several stories claiming provenance, with the most likely coming from Virginia. Thomas Jefferson is credited for procuring the recipe on a trip to Italy (thank you, Mr. President!) and the rest is culinary history. This iconic casserole is so loved, it’s practically considered a vegetable in some states.
My version is a cheesy love affair. I wouldn’t go as far as amending the food pyramid just yet, but after one bite of this you just might.
The Stock Pot: Sensational Sides – Four Cheese Macaroni and Cheese
- unsalted butter for the baking pan(s)
- 2 cups whole milk
- 2 cups half-and-half
- ¼ teaspoon ground red pepper
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- ¼ teaspoon onion powder
- ¼ teaspoon dry mustard
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 2 cups grated extra-sharp cheddar
- 1 cup grated Gruyère
- 1 cup grated fontina
- 1 cup panko
- 1 cup grated Parmesan
- 1 pound elbow macaroni
- kosher salt
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- freshly ground black pepper
- extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter individual gratins or a shallow 3-quart baking dish and set aside. In a large measuring cup, combine the milk, half-and-half, red pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, mustard and nutmeg; set aside. In another bowl, combine the cheddar, Gruyère and fontina; set aside. In a small bowl, combine the panko and Parmesan and set aside. Cook the pasta in salted boiling water according to the package directions until barely al dente. Drain the pasta well in a colander; set aside.
- In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Whisk in the flour until smooth, whisking constantly, and cook for 1 minute. Slowly whisk in the milk mixture until combined and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat; check for salt and add in pepper. Add in cheeses and stir until cheese is melted. Combine the pasta and cheese mixture and pour into prepared pan(s). Sprinkle over the panko topping, drizzle a little olive oil over the topping and bake until cheese is bubbly and the top is golden, about 25 to 30 minutes.
…from the Picture-Perfect kitchen:
Planning: You can prepare this mac ‘n cheese a day in advance and bake it off the next day. Wait to add the breadcrumb topping just before baking.
Product Purity: Always, always use the best quality cheeses that you grate yourself. Panko is a Japanese crisp, light large breadcrumb. Progresso brand is my choice because it does not contain high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils.
Presentation: Sure, you can bake the macaroni in a shallow casserole dish, but individual servings make a big splash at the table. Gratins, like the one in the photograph, are available at kitchen specialty stores, like Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table.