I’ve talked about my love affair with chicken wings and all things creamy and rich and caloric in the winter months. I haven’t talked about my love affair with mac and cheese. Mac and cheese is the Lorelai to my Rory. The Laverne to my Shirley. Without it, life would be boring and colorless.
There’s more to it than that, even. I have tried preparing at least the top 25 recipes from ‘The Google’ on my quest to find the perfect homemade mac and cheese. There are duds out there, folks. There are some really good ones, too. Like this one that uses a sheet pan so every bite has the corner-piece-crunch. And this one that will make your heart skip a beat (in both a good and bad way) simply by reading the ingredients. I still haven’t found ‘the one’ though.
So the path on this mac and cheese quest has diverged. It’s time for me to try to make the perfect recipe myself, which begged the question: what makes a good mac and cheese?
- Tender noodles with crispy edges (So baked, not stovetop)
- A nice balance of creamy and salty cheeses (No processed cheeses)
- Relatively quick to make
- Simple (but not out of the box)
- Noodles that aren’t drowning in a sea of grease and fat
- Not soupy, not solid, but juuuust right.
One of my all time favorite mac and cheeses hails from the K&W Cafeteria. It’s a southern thing. Hell, it may be an Eastern North Carolina thing. You start your experience off by grabbing a tray at the beginning of a long line (often accompanied by blue-haired church-going ladies and bald-headed gents) and work your way through, pointing at the items you want from behind a glass window. The cafeteria workers call you shug and honey and if you really use your manners, they’ll serve you up the biggest piece or bowl or slice of whatever it is you want.
The mac and cheese there, though, is damn near perfect, in my opinion. Its noodle to cheese proportion is probably 3:1. You get a pretty dense bite of elbow noodles with a little (er, a lot of?) butter, cottage cheese, and egg baked in to bind it together, topped with a shredded cheddar. It seems to meet all the marks listed above. For the life of me, I cannot create it. I’ve tried recipes that come close, but it’s just slightly off.
This recipe does not resemble K&W’s because I got the inspiration from one of my favorite Ina recipes. It, too, hits all the marks but it’s a little fancy pants. Which is a reason why I hesitated posting it. BUT it is REALLY tasty. I promise. The fontina lends a creamy note but it still manages to crisp around the edges and brown on top. The fresh herbs offer a flavorful brightness to each bite that you don’t really expect, but as soon as you try it, you’ll wonder why you haven’t loaded your mac and cheese with herbs before. A downside: you have to dirty up more than one dish, but the end result is worth it. I promise. The only thing it’s missing is a little crunch for texture contrast. I’d suggest using buttered panko to top to give it a little extra somthin’-somethin’.
Give it a try and let me know how you like it. Even if you don’t try it, please let me know: what’s YOUR perfect mac and cheese?
- 1 pound dried penne
- 2 eggs
- 4 Tbsp. butter
- ¼ cup AP flour
- 1 cup half and half
- 1 cup milk
- 1 lb fontina, grated
- 1 Tbsp. rosemary, finely chopped
- 1 Tbsp. thyme, finely chopped
- 6 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
- ½ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp. white pepper
- ½ cup parmesan
- ½ cup Panko Breadcrumbs and melted butter, to top (optional)
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- In a pot of boiling, salted water, cook the penne until slightly firm just on the less done side of al dente. I suggest cooking 1-2 minutes less than the “al dente” instructions on the box.
- In a small bowl, beat the eggs together.
- Melt the butter in a large pot over medium high heat. Slowly whisk in the flour until a roux, or paste forms. Continue whisking constantly for 1-2 minutes, or until the paste is slightly darkened and nutty smelling. Pour in half the milk, continuing to whisk constantly. Once the milk and roux are well incorporated, add the remainder of the milk, continuing to whisk. Then, add the half and half and you guessed it, whisk some more. Stir in rosemary, thyme, and garlic. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and let the sauce blip away, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened.
- Take about ½ cup of the sauce and slowly pour into the bowl with the beaten eggs, whisking constantly so the egg does not cook through. Once the two are incorporated, stir egg mixture into sauce, stirring until smooth. Add in the cheese and stir to melt. Once melted, add the salt and white pepper.
- Stir in the drained macaroni and stir well to coat the penne with the sauce.
- In a buttered casserole dish, pour in the sauced pasta. Top with parmesan and Panko-butter (if using).
- Bake for 25 minutes or until the edges are browned and the center set.