Sunday, April 26, 2015

Mac and Cheese

The other day I wrote about using my Pyrex collection in my kitchen, and in one of the comments someone asked if I would share the recipes for my banana bread and my mac and cheese.

I can't share the banana nut bread recipe.

It's my mom's, and I'm afraid of her.

I can share the macaroni and cheese recipe, though, because it's mine. It started out as a recipe from a comfort food cookbook, but I've adjusted it enough over the years that I think it's safe for me to say that it belongs to me now. I'll put the recipe first, and then some important notes that you should follow, or else I'll judge you.

Mac and Cheese

1/2 pound dry small pasta
1 tablespoon butter
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon mustard
3 cups grated cheese
1 cup milk

1) Preheat oven to 350 F.

2) Put the butter, salt, pepper, and mustard in a big mixing bowl.

3) Boil the pasta in salted water. You want it to still be a little firm when you're done, because it's going to absorb moisture from the cheese while cooking and soften. If you start with soft pasta (why are you eating soft pasta, anyway, instead of al dente?) it will turn to mush and your mac and cheese will have poor texture.

4) Drain the pasta and dump it into the big mixing bowl. Stir it up until the butter melts. Pour the beaten egg over it and stir it up again until all of the pasta looks like it got some egg, butter, and mustard on it.

5) Butter or spray the inside of your baking dish, and sprinkle the bottom with some of the shredded cheese. Add most of the remaining cheese to the big mixing bowl, saving enough to sprinkle on top of the mac and cheese. Mix it all together until the cheese seems evenly distributed through the pasta.

6) Pour the mixture into your baking dish. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top. Slowly pour the milk over the top of the whole thing, getting as much of it wet as you can. (Don't just dump the milk in the middle and call it a day.)

7) Bake for 45 minutes. When it's done, set it on top of the oven to cool for about 15 minutes before serving. It'll still be warm, but the cheese will firm up a little.

Notes, gathered from several years of experimenting with this recipe:

1) It doesn't matter what kind of pasta you use as long as it is a smallish sized pasta and not a flat pasta. Shells, mini penne, regular penne, elbow macaroni, whatever you have a half pound of.

2) This is not a diet recipe. Use real butter, real cheese, and whole milk. All of those things have fat, which is going to melt and bake together and make a nice firm mac and cheese. If you use diet cheese and 2% milk the mac and cheese will be thin and weird, especially since diet cheese doesn't melt so well. If you're worried about calories, serve yourself a smaller portion.

3) Shred your own cheese. Do it in a food processor or just use a box grater like I do. My mom thinks I'm kind of a snob on this issue, but I have a legitimate reason: pre-shredded cheese in the bag has things added to it (usually corn starch) to keep the cheese from sticking together. That's fine, and there are times when that's useful. If you're making fondue, using the pre-shredded cheese means you don't have to add corn starch to your cheese, because the additives are already there and will help keep your fondue liquid instead of binding up. You want your mac and cheese to melt together, though, so shred the cheese yourself. To get the 3 cups of shredded cheese for the recipe, you need 8-10 ounces of cheese.

4) Use a couple of kinds of cheese. One of them should always be cheddar if you're making a traditional mac and cheese, but they should all be a medium or firm cheese, because then they'll all melt the same way while it's baking. Soft cheeses have a lot of moisture, and will make the mac and cheese really wet and it won't hold together as firmly. For the one in the blog entry the other day, I used most of an 8 ounce block of generic store brand sharp cheddar, and then went to the "$5 and under" bin at the fancy cheese case at Kroger and grabbed a lump of sharp English cheddar and a lump of some cheese that I forgot the name of. It felt about the same firmness of the cheddar when I squeezed it, and the label said that it was salty, nutty, and went well with beer. Since cheddar also goes well with beer, I assumed that this cheese and cheddar would go well together, and they did.

5) Extra cheese will not hurt you. If you end up with four cups instead of three, mmmmmm... cheese.

6) Any kind of mustard is fine. I have five or six kinds in my refrigerator because mustard is the lowest calorie condiment I like, so I've been drowning sandwiches in it. For this recipe I usually use Dijon or spicy brown mustard, but if all you have is a bottle of plain old yellow mustard, that works, too. The mustard adds a little bit of savory flavor to the recipe, and brings out the flavors of the cheese.

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