By Susanne Merrett
Our son loves cheese! I suspect he had a past life in France. I can see him standing on a lush, green hill, surveying a small herd of brown-pied Normande cows in the meadow below. Blissful bovines, absently chewing some fresh, sweet grass, all eagerly awaiting their daily milking.
But I digress (as always!) – where were we? Ah yes, Mac N Cheese. That cheesy comfort food of our childhood. It is still a favourite in our house, and what’s not to like? Fun pasta shapes (for even though the name suggests macaroni, we have evolved beyond the boring elbow shape) combined with a trio of luscious dairy products – milk (or cream!), butter, and cheese.
This is definitely not a dish for the diet conscious, nor is it food allergy friendly. Gluten and dairy abound to make one great big dish of “Is there any more?”
Of course, if you must, you can substitute a non-gluten pasta (rice, corn, quinoa, etc.) and a non-dairy “milk” (soy, almond, rice, etc.) and even a non-dairy “cheese,” but it won’t be anything like the original. If it were me (and it is!), if gluten and dairy were an issue, I would not bother with any substitutions. I would just eat something else.
It’s kinda like air conditioning. Once you have it, there’s NO goin’ back. Once you’ve eaten a scrumptiously delicious Mac N Cheese, there simply is no substitute!
A good, homemade Mac N Cheese takes no longer to make than the blue boxed variety found on grocery stores shelves. If you’re a purist, use a good sharp, old Cheddar. Me, I often use whatever is on hand. Keep in mind that the milk (or cream!) that you use in the sauce will tone down the flavour of the cheese, so it’s best to start with a strong tasting cheese to get the best flavour.
I used a sharp Cheddar and some Parmigiano Reggiano – my son’s favourite flavour combo. I have also used an old Cheddar and Asiago. If you wanted to use a Bleu cheese, you might consider pairing it with a milder cheese, like Gouda or Havarti so that you keep that strong Bleu cheese taste. If you throw a third cheese into the mix, make sure it’s mild – too many cheese flavours competing for your attention is not always a good thing!
I usually keep a good variety of dry pastas in the pantry. We are all foodies in this house (yes, even the dog gets homemade food!), so I like to use a pasta that has a fun shape – I chose cavatappi, which literally means corkscrew in Italian! Being a little OCD, I unwound any of the amorous cavatappi from each other – sometimes they get twisted into one another, and just to keep the G rating (okay, I really just want them to cook evenly) I untwist them.
Whatever pasta shape you choose, just pop your pasta into a big pot of boiling water. I never salt the water, mainly because my son prefers his pasta softer than al dente, and salted water tends to keep the pasta a little firmer. If you like al dente pasta, add a little salt to the boiling water, just before you add the pasta.
While the pasta is cooking, you have time to grate the cheeses and start the roux. Roux is just a fancy name for a paste of a fat (in this case butter) and flour. It’s miles away from rocket science. Equal parts of butter and flour are what you’re going for. First melt the butter, then whisk in the flour. Once the roux is a cohesive paste, add about a third of the milk and quickly whisk it into the paste until you have a smooth sauce. Then, add another third, still whisking, and finally the last third, whisking all the while. SIMPLE. The trick is to get that liquid into the roux as soon as a paste has formed.
Then add the cheeses and let them melt in. Mmmmm! YUM – smell that cheesy smell? That’s your cue to start salivating!
Now, taste your lovely sauce and decide if it needs some salt. Some cheeses are saltier than others. I usually add a little salt, but it’s up to you.
By now, the pasta is probably done, so go right ahead and drain it well, and toss it into the pan with the cheese sauce. Taste once more – a salty cheese sauce will taste far less salty once the pasta is added.
All that’s left is to divide your Mac N Cheese into bowls and dig in!
Marvellous Mac N Cheese
Oh so creamy, cheesy goodness wrapped up in one of the top ten comfort foods. This recipe makes two good-sized portions or four smaller ones to pair with a fresh, green salad. Feel free to double the recipe to make four meal-sized portions.
2 Cups dry pasta (any smallish shape you like) – about 150 g dry weight
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
2 Cups grated Old Cheddar
1/2 Cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1 1/2 Cups whole milk (or 2% milk or cream, if you like)
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt (plus a good pinch for pasta water, if using)
In a large pot, bring water to boil. Once boiling, add pasta (and salt, if using) and set timer for desired doneness.
While the pasta is cooking, grate the cheeses.
In a saucepan melt the butter over med-high heat. Once the butter has melted, sprinkle in the flour and whisk until a paste forms. Add the milk, one-third at a time, whisking quickly to blend together.
Add the cheeses into the sauce and whisk until melted. Remove from heat and let sit.
When the pasta is done, drain it well, and stir it into the cheese sauce. Give it a quick taste, adjust seasonings, and enjoy!
Some fun variations...add some minced garlic in with the butter...add your favourite hot sauce into the cheese sauce...add some broccoli florets into the pasta water about half way through the cooking.