Move over apple pie. I do believe that macaroni and cheese is slowly taking over as the quintessential, all American standard. Well, perhaps I speak too soon. Nevertheless, it’s right up there with baseball and apple pie. And like all things American, mac n cheese is so versatile. I mean, think about it. Hundreds of cheeses in the culinary glossary from which to choose. Lots of pasta shapes, too. That spells creativity to me.
I’ll admit that I didn’t exactly grow up with macaroni and cheese. Being Italian, macaroni was a staple in my home. However, it was usually adorned with some type of red sauce, meatballs, or at least a vegetable sautéed in garlic and oil. I remember the time I asked my grandmother for mac n cheese. I had seen it on a television commercial. She proceeded to serve me macaroni laden with ricotta and Parmigiano cheeses. Delicious. But definitely not was I was looking for. It wasn’t yellow! My Mom eventually got the picture, and from then on the macaroni and cheese I was served came straight out of a box. Those convenient varieties still exist. But it’s the homemade and restaurant made creations that we’re all really after, isn’t it? And talk about your comfort food. Hot and steamy pasta loaded with all types of gooey cheese in a creamy sauce. How bad could that be on a cold winter’s day?
I’ve conducted lots of experimentation where mac n cheese is concerned. When I first began, I used only the processed cheese that so many of my friends who grew up with Southern Soul Food swore by. I usually served it right out of the saucepan. As my horizons expanded, so did my recipe collection. And recipes do abound. Of course, they almost always start with a béchamel cream sauce. Easy enough to prepare. What I like about Phyllis’ recipe (below) is that her béchamel incorporates shallots and garlic directly into the roux. Ingenious, as far as I’m concerned. If your base sauce boasts lots of flavor, you can only move up on the taste scale as you begin to fold in your cheeses. I use the plural here, because that’s really the only way to go. A combination of cheeses can only intensify and build a complexity that your mac n cheese is craving. What cheeses? The choice is wide open to you. Use your favorites. If you like the way they taste with crackers and wine, you’ll love them in your dish. Try to balance sharp with mellow, however. Too much either way and you might be disappointed.
Now, I mentioned that I used to spoon my mac n cheese straight from the saucepan. Kind of shortsighted at the time. A really magnificent macaroni and cheese should be baked. It gives the cheese, cream sauce and pasta some time to meld and get acquainted. And the crust that baking produces on top is a must. Whether you’re using breadcrumb or crumbled crackers, the contrast between the crunch and cream is heavenly. One note. Be sure to prepare your macaroni al dente. That’s to say, ever so slightly underdone. It will continue to cook in the oven.
Additions to your mac n cheese recipes can include smoky bacon or ham, or a spicy chorizo. I sometimes add steamed broccoli or spinach. Any complementary ingredient will contribute to a whole new dimension. And it will all be scrumptious. It’s like I said. We Americans are extremely resourceful. Mac n cheese is no different. No matter what flavorings you add, it will always be a quintessentially American dish.