When was your first memory of tasting macaroni and cheese?
And what did you think of the dish that ranks up there with hot dogs, hamburgers and french fries for the young and not so young?
The cheesy pasta dish is a perennial favorite regardless of age, according to Laura Werlin, author of the recipe book I received called "Mac & Cheese, Please!" The book has 50 recipes for different ways to prepare the quintessential favorite dish.
WELCOME ON MOST ANY TABLE — “Mac & Cheese, Please!” is the title of a book that contains 50 super cheesy recipes. The classic mac and cheese recipe seems to be the most popular and has been welcomed on the tables of many families over the years. -- Esther McCoy
Even though there are seemingly infinite numbers of pasta shapes and sizes, not all are good for making mac and cheese, according to the book. Large-size pasta is almost always a poor choice, and that's because the focus becomes the pasta and not the cheese or any other ingredients that may be in the sauce.
You want pasta that will attract all the cheesy goodness, not repel it. Sometimes larger pasta shapes insist on their independence and keep the cheese sauce at bay. That defeats the purpose of mac and cheese and makes it simply pasta with cheese.
If you have ever made pasta in unsalted water and tasted it side by side with pasta that has been made in salted water, you will instantly understand the difference.
Pasta cooked in unsalted water is tasteless, and salting after the fact won't do. Recipes from the book call for salt -lots of it - in the pasta water before cooking. And the recipes will call for salted butter, even though the water is salted.
Patience is needed for serving mac and cheese. Recipes in the book call for waiting 15 minutes before serving. The truth is that the finished dishes can sit for a whole lot longer and not only retain their heat, but also develop flavor as they cool. The additional benefit to this is that it makes the cheesy dish the ideal one for company.
Some good thoughts to know from the cookbook are:
Eight ounces of dried pasta equals about 2 cups.
Most recipes in the book will serve six people but there are party-time dishes that will serve 12 to 16. If serving for four or even two people, put the halved or tripled amount into a 4-by-8-inch loaf pan or put it in ramekins. Six 8-ounce ramekins is the equivalent of one 8-inch square pan.
Coarsely grated means shreds of cheese that are about one-fourth inch in diameter - the same as the large holes of a box grater. Finely grated means tiny shreds of cheese about the size of a thin piece of string.
For making bread crumbs, four sandwich-size slices of bread equal 2 cups coarse bread crumbs. And it is the crunchy bread crumbs on top that really set off the dish.
Here are some mac and cheese fun facts from the book:
Thomas Jefferson's cousin, Mary Randolph, is credited with being the first American to memorialize mac and cheese in a cookbook in 1824.
"The Virginia Cookbook" recommended that if no macaroni was available, soak crackers in milk until soft to make what she called mock macaroni.
Jefferson had served mac and cheese at a state dinner in 1802, but it may have been macaroni pie rather than macaroni and cheese as we know it.
Kraft Foods introduced boxed macaroni and cheese in 1937 and the rest, as they say, was history.
In any given three-month period, approximately one-third of the United States population will eat macaroni and cheese at least once, and about half of all children in the U.S. will eat it during that time period.
July 14 is Macaroni and Cheese Day in the United States.
Crayola created a macaroni and cheese color crayon in 1993, and it still exists today. And the most popular cheese used to make the pasta dish is cheddar.
Now on with the recipes from this book. See if you can find anything that looks interesting and tasty to you.
We always need a classic recipe of the pasta dish to get a basis for the rest. There is a slight difference, though, as it calls for diced yellow onion, nutmeg and cayenne pepper.
Classic Mac & Cheese
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
8 ounces small elbow macaroni
5 tablespoons salted butter, plus more for the baking dish
2 cups coarse, fresh bread crumbs, preferable homemade
2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated, about 1 cup
3/4 cup finely diced yellow onion, about half a medium onion
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole or reduced-fat milk
1 cup heavy cream
6 ounces medium or aged cheddar cheese, preferably an orange-color coarsely grated type, 2 cups
1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground or freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter an 8-inch square baking dish or six 8-ounce ramekins. Set aside. Fill a 4- to 5-quart pot about three-quarters full of water and add 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to a boil and add the pasta. Cook, stirring once or twice, until tender but firm, about 4 minutes and drain. Reserve the pot. While the pasta is cooling, in a medium skillet, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium heat. Turn off the heat and add the bread crumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Stir until mixed well. Set aside. Using the same pot used to cook the pasta, melt the remaining 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Slowly whisk in the flour and stir constantly until the onion is coated with the flour, 30 to 45 seconds. Continue stirring for 2 minutes more or until it starts to darken slightly. Slowly stir in milk, cream and remaining salt and cook until the mixture is beginning to thicken and bubble around the edges, 5 to 7 minutes. It should be similar in texture to cake batter. Add 1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, Gruyere, mustard powder, cayenne and nutmeg and stir until the cheeses have melted, and the sauce is smooth but not too runny. Add pasta and stir to combine. Pour into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheddar and top with bread crumb mixture. Place dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until bubbling and golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving.
Note: Some add-ins could be six to eight slices of crisp and crumbled bacon before turning it into the baking dish or add 3/4 cup coarsely chopped roasted red peppers. Another addition would be a pint of cherry tomatoes, baked in a 400-degree oven on a rimmed baking sheet. First drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste then roast 15 to 20 minutes until the tomatoes are slightly shriveled. Add the tomatoes but not the accumulated oil in with the mac and cheese mixture.
The classic recipe can be made gluten-free with a few changes: Use gluten-free small elbow macaroni, gluten-free bread crumbs, 1/4 cup cornstarch for the flour and omit the nutmeg. Prepare the same as above and bake the same amount of time.
This recipe for fried mac and cheese sounds very appealing, but I have never tried it or eaten it yet. The cookbook notes that it is crunchy on the outside, soft and creamy on the inside and is a spectacular way to use leftover oven cooked mac and cheese. The stovetop variety won't work here.
Fried Mac and Cheese Squares
8-inch square oven-cooked classic mac and cheese chilled for 24 or more hours
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 cups coarse, fresh bread crumbs, preferably homemade
1 1/2 cups canola, vegetable or peanut oil, plus more if needed
Red hot sauce for serving
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and line another one with paper towels. Cut mac and cheese into large pieces, then cut each piece into 1-inch squares. Place flour, salt and cayenne in a shallow bowl and whisk to combine. Place eggs in another shallow bowl and put the bread crumbs into a third bowl. Dip a mac and cheese square into the flour mixture. Tap off excess flour then dip into the egg. Roll in bread crumbs and set on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining mac and cheese squares.
Heat oil in medium pan over medium-high heat. The oil is hot enough when it looks wavy. Test with one mac and cheese square. It should sizzle and begin to turn brown on the underside in about 30 seconds. To cook, add as many squares as will comfortably fit in the pan without crowding. Using tongs, turn the squares as they begin to brown on the undersides. Keep turning so all sides are browned. Transfer to a paper towel-lined baking sheet as they are done. Serve right away or place the batch in the oven to keep warm. Continue cooking the remaining squares. Serve with Red Hot Sauce alongside. Makes about 10 dozen 1-inch squares.
This is a twist on spaghetti and meatballs, using mac and cheese as the pasta.
Sauce and Meatballs Mac and Cheese
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup ricotta cheese, drained if watery
8 ounces ground pork
1 ounce aged Asiago cheese, finely grated, about 1/2 cup or use Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano
1/2 slice fresh white or sourdough bread, torn into very small pieces
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Mac and cheese:
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
8 ounces large elbow macaroni
2 tablespoons salted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole or reduced-fat milk
6 ounces Taleggio cheese, rind removed and cut into bite-size pieces or use Fontina, coarsely grated
6 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into bite-size pieces, or coarsely grated if using vacuum packed
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 cups jarred sauce or homemade marina sauce
8 ounces mozzarella cheese, cut into bite-size pieces
For the meatballs: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and coat it with a thin layer of olive oil. Measure out half the beaten egg and discard it or reserve for another use. In a medium bowl, whisk ricotta and remaining egg together until combined. Put remaining meatball ingredients in a medium bowl. Mix with the hands or use a wooden spoon. Be careful not to over mix or the meatballs will be tough. Add the egg mixture and stir to combine. Using about 1 teaspoon of the mixture at a time, form the balls in your hand. You may need to put a little olive oil on your hands to keep the mixture from sticking too much. The meatballs need to be just 1/2-inch in diameter. Place on prepared baking sheet. Cook in the oven 10 to 12-minutes, stirring once or twice until browned but not hard. Remove from oven and set aside. Turn the oven down to 375 degrees.
For the mac and cheese: Butter an 8-inch square baking dish or six 8-ounce ramekins. Set aside. Fill a 4- to 5-quart pot about three-quarters full of water and add 1 tablespoons salt. Bring to a boil and add the pasta. Cook, stirring once or twice, until tender but firm, 6 to 8 minutes and drain. Using the same pot used to cook the pasta, melt the butter over medium heat. Slowly whisk in flour and stir constantly until a paste forms, 30 to 45 seconds. Continue stirring for 1 to 2 minutes more, until the mixture starts to darken slightly. Whisk in the cream, milk and remaining salt and cook until the mixture starts to thicken and bubble around the edges, 5 to 7 minutes. It should be thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Add the Taleggio, mozzarella and cayenne. Stir until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth. Add the pasta and meatballs and stir to combine. To assemble, spread about 1 cup tomato sauce in the bottom of the pan. Pour the pasta mixture into the pan. Pour the remaining tomato sauce on top of the pasta and top with the mozzarella. Place dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until bubbling and golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let cool 20 minutes before serving. Makes six servings.
(McCoy can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)