Friday, October 19, 2012

Stove Top Macaroni and Cheese

Macaroni and cheese makes the world a better place. If people had more macaroni and cheese in their lives, there would be no wars, no poverty, no evil. It may seem drastic, but there is something so innocent and peaceful about a hot bowl of cheesy macaroni. While it is often associated with childhood meals, I know many many adults who still find comfort in the stuff, whether it's out of a box or homemade.

There are two major schools of thought when macaroni and cheese is concerned: stove top or baked. Stove top macaroni and cheese comes together quickly and easily atop the stove and is ready to eat in minutes. What it typically lacks is the added texture of a crunchy crust on top. A baked mac and cheese requires the additional baking time before it can be eaten, but yields a bubbly and crusty component that simply cannot be matched otherwise (even if you crumble bread crumbs on top of the alternative). Toppings such as additional cheese, bread crumbs (whether dry, fresh, or panko), cracker crumbs, etc can all be utilized in this step.

Baked mac and cheese is also better when the pasta is only cooked about halfway since it continues to cook in the oven and absorb some of the sauce. A complaint about baked mac and cheese can sometimes be the lack of creaminess in the texture due to the absorption of the sauce during the baking process. For purists who cannot enjoy their macaroni and cheese any other way, stove top mac and cheese is the way to go. Personally, I love both. I'm a fan of the convenience of baked mac and cheese (which can be prepped in advance and then baked in a casserole), as well as the crunchy topping, a true highlight in my eyes. I also love the unmatched creaminess of the stove top version. I'm an equal opportunity mac and cheese fanatic.

I have searched high and low for the best stove top macaroni and cheese recipes. I have seen a mixture of Béchamel-based recipes as well as some that utilize canned evaporated milk. The evaporated milk method is easily less time consuming and less complicated than the alternative and has very favorable reviews. It's also easier to make "lighter" mac and cheese with this method because you can purchase reduced fat evaporated milk that works just as fine as the full fat version. I tried a couple variations and found the following recipe to be the best formula for success (at least in my kitchen).

In my earlier attempts, using more eggs resulted in a much stiffer sauce, while using extra cheese (sharp cheddar, no less) made it almost unpalatable and way too strong-tasting. I preferred the medium-sharp flavor of the Tillamook cheddar. It was still a bit too sharp for my 4 year old nephew (whose palate has been trained by Velveeta), so perhaps next time in his honor I will use half cheddar and half American cheese to mellow out the flavor and make it more child friendly.

This macaroni and cheese featured al dente macaroni wrapped in silky, cheesy perfection. The sauce basically glazed the macaroni, creating a beautiful creamy balance in decadence. The sauce will thicken as it sits, so don't freak out if it takes a few minutes before it properly clings to your noodles. This is a truly easy recipe to keep in mind when craving macaroni and cheese. If you have canned evaporated milk in your pantry (plan ahead for future cravings) as well as an egg in your refrigerator, picking up a block of cheese on your way home from work is all you'll need to do to create a homemade, superior version of a childhood favorite for the whole family, even on the fly.

Stove Top Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 4
(Adapted from Alton Brown)

8 oz elbow macaroni (or other small shape such as small shells, rotini, or fusilli)
1 egg
6 oz evaporated milk (using a 5 oz can should be fine, just slightly less saucy--in that case, an extra splash of milk wouldn't hurt either)
1 tsp. kosher salt
3/4 tsp. dry mustard
1/2 tsp. hot sauce or a pinch of cayenne pepper
8 oz cheddar cheese, shredded (or combination of cheddar, American, and/or Monterey Jack cheeses--I used medium sharp Tillamook cheddar; anything sharper would be too sharp in my opinion or would need to be mixed with a milder cheese)

In a large pot of boiling, salted water cook the pasta until al dente and drain. Return to the pot.

Whisk together the egg, milk, salt, mustard, and hot sauce. Stir into the pasta and add the cheese. Over low heat continue to stir for 3 minutes or until silky and creamy. The sauce will thicken more as it sits.


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