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Published: Wednesday, April 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Secrets of perfect mac 'n' cheese

  • The key elements of mac and cheese are cooking the pasta to the proper doneness and making a smooth sauce.

    Bill Hogan / Chicago Tribune

    The key elements of mac and cheese are cooking the pasta to the proper doneness and making a smooth sauce.

Mac and cheese is all about technique. And you thought it was about the cheese.
There is more to achieving the best texture and flavor, says Ellen Brown, author of "Mac & Cheese: 80 Classic & Creative Versions of the Ultimate Comfort Food" ($20).
"The difference between a good mac and cheese and a great mac and cheese is technique," Brown says.
Brown is a cookbook author, food columnist and former USA Today food editor.
And the key elements of that technique are cooking the pasta to the proper doneness and stirring up a smooth sauce.
"If mac and cheese is oven baked, you have to undercook the pasta and it has to look really soupy when it goes in the oven," Brown says. "You want that soupiness so after 20 minutes or a half hour you'll have exactly the right consistency."
With those elements conquered, the third is an ingredient, not method, and is, of course, that cheese. You want to use flavorful cheese, certainly, but you also want a combination of two or more for complexity.
Whether stove top or baked (better, thank you), classic or with add-ins of various vegetables (greens, broccoli, artichokes) or proteins (lobster, chicken, bacon), a mac and cheese's greatness is built upon this foundation.
Brown -- along with Laura Werlin's "Mac & Cheese, Please!" -- breaks it down below.
The pasta
You must undercook the pasta before baking the casserole because the pasta cooks more in the oven.
Start with a dried pasta high in durum semolina, choosing short shapes (less than 2 inches). Brown and Werlin list more than a dozen, but start with penne, gemelli, elbows or orecchiette.
Skip expensive artisan imported varieties, Brown advises; spend the money on the cheese instead.
Then cook that pasta in plenty of well-salted boiling water until it begins to soften but is not yet al dente -- about 1 minute short of the low end of the maker's suggested cooking time. Taste to check doneness.
The cheese
Go for quality. Go for complexity. Get the latter by using a combination of cheeses.
"Your dominant player is a cheese you would sit down and eat by itself: all forms of cheddar, Gruyere and Gouda," Brown says. "Cheeses that are not overwhelming."
The supporting player will have stronger flavor, like a blue cheese or Parmesan. You'll use less of this.
"It's amazing what a little bit will do," Brown says.
Buy from a cheese shop or grocer with a good cheese counter. (Again, both authors offer dozens of ideas.) Barring that, choose supermarket cheeses like cheddar, Monterey Jack and jalapeno jack, Brown says.
And skip the pre-shredded.
"Cheese begins to lose flavor the second it's grated," she warns.
The sauce
The key to a velvety-smooth cheese sauce that coats the pasta and other ingredients uniformly is a simple roux. That mixture forms the base for a bechamel, a simple-to-make sauce.
Yet Brown has found in her years of food journalism that few people know how to make it.
Here's how: Cook butter (or other fat) and flour together over low heat so the flour loses its uncooked taste; slowly whisk in the milk (warm it first, she says) over medium heat to avoid lumps; cook gently until the sauce begins to thicken; add the cheese gradually, otherwise the sauce will cool and the cheese may form a giant lump that won't melt easily.
Mediterranean mac and cheese with olives
  • 8 cloves garlic, unpeeled
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 6 ounces baby spinach
  • 1/2 pound penne
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk, warmed
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 6 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
  • 2 ounces Muenster, grated
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, diced
  • 3 ounces provolone, grated
  • 1/4 cup plain breadcrumbs
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Toss garlic with oil; wrap in foil. Bake until cloves are soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Allow to cool. Pop cloves from skins; mash into a paste.
Meanwhile, heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in the spinach; cook just until wilted, 30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon; drain. When cool, squeeze out liquid. Add pasta to boiling water; cook until just beginning to soften; it should not yet be al dente. Drain; rinse the pasta. Return it to the pot.
Melt butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat; stir in flour. Cook, stirring, until mixture turns slightly beige, is bubbly and appears to have grown in volume, 1 minute. Increase heat to medium; slowly whisk in the milk. Heat until just beginning to bubble, whisking frequently. Reduce heat to low; stir in thyme and lemon zest. Simmer, 2 minutes.
Add goat and Muenster cheeses by 1/2-cup measures, stirring until cheese melts before adding more. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir garlic, spinach and olives into pasta. Pour sauce over pasta; stir to coat. Transfer to a buttered 13-by-9-inch baking pan. Combine provolone and breadcrumbs; sprinkle over dish.
Bake until cheese sauce is bubbly and topping browns, 20 to 30 minutes. Allow to rest 5 minutes before serving.
Makes 6 servings. Per serving: 490 calories, 27 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 56 mg cholesterol, 42 g carbohydrates, 21 g protein, 666 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.
Adapted from "Mac & Cheese," by Ellen Brown, who adapted the recipe from S'MAC (Sarita's Macaroni & Cheese) in New York.
Buffalo chicken mac and cheese
  • 1/2 pound cavatappi
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 3/4 cups whole milk
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed grated Monterey Jack
  • 1/2 cup crumbled Gorgonzola
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons hot sauce
  • 2 teaspoons cider vinegar
  • 1 large grilled or broiled boneless, skinless chicken breast half, diced
  • 2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives
  • 1/2 cup breadcrumbs

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Heat a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Cook the pasta until just short of al dente. Drain; rinse under cold water. Return pasta to pot.
Meanwhile, melt butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat; stir in flour. Cook, stirring, until mixture turns slightly beige, is bubbly and appears to have grown in volume, 1 minute. Increase heat to medium; slowly whisk in the milk. Heat until just beginning to bubble, whisking frequently. Reduce heat to low. Whisk in the Parmesan and Monterey Jack; stir until melted. Whisk in the Gorgonzola. Simmer, 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Heat the butter, hot sauce and vinegar in a small skillet; add the chicken. Stir to coat evenly with the sauce. Season to taste.
Add the cheese sauce to the pasta; stir well. Fold in the chicken and chives. Pour into a buttered 13-by-9-inch baking dish or 2-quart casserole; sprinkle with the breadcrumbs. Bake, 20-30 minutes.
Makes 6 servings. Per serving: 420 calories, 19 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 61 mg cholesterol, 41 g carbohydrates, 20 g protein, 605 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
Note: To change any stove-top mac and cheese to oven-baked, follow Ellen Brown's method: Cook the pasta until not quite al dente, increase the liquid by 25 percent but keep the cheese amount the same. For baked into stove-top: Cut the liquid back by one quarter; cook the pasta until al dente.
Adapted from "Mac & Cheese, Please!" by Laura Werlin.
For many of her recipes, Werlin includes a sauce or other accompaniment to be served with the finished mac and cheese. Here she includes a tomatillo salsa.
You could use a jarred version, or skip it altogether. We served it with rajas, roasted poblano peppers cut into strips, and loved it (see recipe below). Also, her recipe calls for finishing the dish on the stove top, but we prefer oven-baked so have adapted her directions.
Fiery south of the border mac and cheese
Salsa:
  • 8 ounces tomatillos, husks removed, quartered
  • 1 medium white onion, peeled, cut lengthwise into 6 pieces
  • 1 serrano pepper, halved lengthwise, seeded
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • Mac and cheese:
  • 8 ounces small elbow macaroni
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 1/2 cups 2 percent milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 12 ounces pepper jack cheese, coarsely grated, about 3 1/2 cups
  • 1 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen (no need to thaw if frozen)
  • 2 whole pickled jalapenos, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves, plus sprigs for garnish
  • 1/2 cup crushed tortilla chips
For the salsa, heat the oven to 375 degrees. Put the tomatillos, onion and serrano pepper on a rimmed baking sheet. Toss with the oil. Sprinkle with the salt and pepper to taste. Roast, stirring occasionally, until the tomatillos have collapsed, about 20 minutes. Let cool a bit. Transfer to a food processor or blender with the cilantro and water; process until smooth. Taste for seasonings.
For the mac and cheese, heat a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta; cook until tender but firm; it should be short of al dente. Drain; rinse with cold water. Return pasta to pot.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Slowly whisk in the flour; stir constantly until a paste forms, 30-45 seconds. Whisk until the mixture starts to darken slightly and smell a bit nutty, 1-2 minutes. Turn heat to medium-low. Slowly whisk in the milk and salt; cook until the mixture starts to thicken and is just beginning to bubble around the edges, 5-7 minutes. It should be thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Add the cheese in handfuls, waiting until it melts before adding more.
Stir the sauce into the pasta to coat well; fold in the corn, jalapenos and cilantro. Transfer to a buttered 2-quart souffle dish; sprinkle with the crushed tortilla chips. Bake at 375 degrees until sauce is bubbly and top begins to brown, 20-30 minutes. Let rest 15 minutes before serving. Serve topped with the salsa.
Makes: 6 servings. Per serving: 580 calories, 32 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 59 mg cholesterol, 50 g carbohydrates, 25 g protein, 974 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
Rajas
Roast 4 to 6 poblano peppers on a rimmed baking sheet under the broiler, turning to roast all sides, until the skins blacken and blister. Transfer to a paper bag; close bag, leaving peppers to steam, 10-15 minutes. When cool, peel off skins, remove pith and seeds, and cut peppers into 1/4-inch strips. Saute half a white onion, chopped, in 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet until soft. Stir in pepper strips and 2-3 tablespoons cream, if you like. Season with salt. Cook to warm through.
Story tags » Cooking

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