By SHANNON WATKINS
I don’t know what shape we’ll be in by the time you read this – at the moment it’s snowing heavily, though not much has accumulated just yet – so I don’t know if you’re relaxing on your porch in a short-sleeved shirt or there’s 12 feet of snow on the ground and you’re barricaded in your house trying to fend off polar zombies.
(If it’s the latter, please give us a call – polar zombies don’t make the news nearly as often as they should, and why should Alaskans have all the fun?)
But right now it seems like warm, rich, heavy comfort foods are called for, the gooier the better. I know that you might still be clinging to the vestiges of a New Year’s resolution to pass up stuff like that, and I admire you for it, and if so, you may want to skip this week’s column. If, on the other hand, you’re looking at a bowl of wilted, unseasoned kale and trying not to cry, read on.
(I digress again to point out that if New Year’s resolutions regarding food habits were meant to be kept, we’d be starting the new year in April or so, when fresh, delicate spring veggies are available, and so temptingly dewy next to that ponderous roast or half-congealed stew. But those very dishes are luscious when they’re just made, and certainly more appealing than sprouts and leaves flown in from far away, especially when you need to stay warm and the whole world looks blah.)
There’s nothing for it but to make a good, hearty casserole that warms you down to your toes, and is especially agreeable to eat if you’re idly surfing the internet for weather reports and free games, or scrolling through Netflix in search of that Oscar-nominated movie everyone keeps harping on about at work (Polar Zombies 2: Electric Boogaloo).
Now of course we’re all familiar with what comes out of the blue Kraft box; most of us grew up with commercial macaroni and cheese on the table alongside whatever else got fixed for dinner, be it pork chops or burger patties or chicken. I seem to recall that in earlier days, Kraft macaroni came in elbow form rather than straight tubes, but maybe that’s my memory playing tricks on me. And I’m sure we can all agree that the blue box cheese (powdered) made a far superior sauce to the Velveeta kind (melted orange vinyl).
But as good as that is in a jiffy, it lacks a certain something. A really great macaroni and cheese can stand as a meal on its own, and I’ve always felt that, though it’s often the sole dish consumed for dinner by the busy or distracted, boxed macaroni and cheese doesn’t have the oomph to carry the table by itself.
This is where the cheerful lunatics at America’s Test Kitchen come in. Better known as the folks who publish the Cook’s Illustrated magazine, the America’s Test Kitchen staff will try to improve existing classic recipes by changing and tweaking them until they’re the quintessence of the original dish. This apparently can involve making the same dish in slightly different ways upwards of 50 times until they get it right, which is where the lunatic part comes in. Admittedly, it’s their job, but I personally would manage to be patient for a grand total of three trials before giving up and suggesting the magazine’s subscribers order a pizza.
I’ve pulled recipes from their Cover & Bake cookbook before; and I really can’t over-recommend it as a source for exactly the kind of food you want on a winter day. They made, according to the cover, 35 batches of macaroni and cheese in order to get the best one. I’ve made it before and I can attest that it is, indeed, pretty amazing.
I like to sauté a diced onion in butter until it’s nice and mellow, and stir it in before baking; sometimes a little white wine sneaks its way in, and I haven’t made this with chopped ham thrown in, but I see no reason why it wouldn’t be delicious. Or, as a nod to healthy eating, toss in some cooked cauliflower. But here’s the basic recipe, which you can alter as you see fit.
Baked Macaroni and Cheese
1 lb. elbow macaroni
6 Tbsps. butter
1 medium garlic clove, minced
1 tsp. dry mustard
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
6 Tbsps. all-purpose flour
1¾ c. low-sodium chicken broth
3½ c. whole milk
16 oz. Colby cheese, shredded (about 5 1/3 cups)
8 oz. extra-sharp cheddar, shredded (about 2 2/3 cups)
4 slices white sandwich bread, torn into quarters
2 Tbsps. butter
Process bread and 2 Tbsps. butter together in a food processor fitted with a steel blade until coarsely ground. (If you don’t want to bother but have panko breadcrumbs, I’ve personally found it to be an acceptable substitute; just drizzle the butter over them after sprinkling them on your casserole.)
Adjust oven rack to the middle position and preheat oven to 400F. Boil macaroni in 4 quarts of water with 1 Tbsp. salt. Drain and set aside. Turn heat down to medium, wipe the pot dry and melt butter in it. Add the garlic, mustard and cayenne and cook for 30 seconds. Add the flour and stir, cooking until golden, about 1 minute. Slowly whisk in the chicken broth and milk. Bring to a simmer and cook, whisking frequently (I find nonstop whisking to work the best) until large bubbles form on the surface and mixture is at least somewhat thickened, 5 to 8 minutes. Off the heat, whisk in the cheeses until completely melted. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Stir in the drained pasta until well combined. Spread in a greased 9” x 13” pan (glass is best) and top evenly with buttered crumbs. Bake until golden brown and bubbling around the edges, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool 10 minutes (if you can wait that long, and also don’t want to burn your tongue off) and serve.
Like every dish made with a béchamel base (that’s what any sauce made with butter and flour and milk is called), the sauce will usually separate upon reheating, which is the one thing boxed mac and cheese has all over homemade. So there’s really no reason not to have as much of it as you like while it’s fresh. As for unloading what you can’t finish, take the rest of it out onto your porch with a smile and a flourish. There’s bound to be at least one or two hungry polar zombies out there, hovering anxiously with tentative, hopeful smiles.