If there is one recipe that according to my family defines my identity as a cook it’s this macaroni and cheese recipe. I don’t like my identity being so wrapped up in one dish, but I guess they do get a say in the matter. It’s the dish that really signifies for us the comforts of home. I started making it 40 years ago with an old Fanny Farmer recipe, updated it with help of Betty Crocker, and then reinvented the dish to put my own twist on it.
I recently went back and recooked all the iterations to see how the dish evolved.
Macaroni and cheese has become a classic because it has all the markings of comfort food. The fat, protein and bulky carbs are filling. The macaroni is soft and, with the cheese, forms a homogeneous mass that is uncomplicated and accessible. The salt and fat are intense enough to send plenty of stimulation to the pleasure centers of the brain.
The Fanny Farmer recipe, which I think has been around since the 1947 edition of Fanny Farmer’s Boston Cooking School cookbook, surely qualifies as uncomplicated. The cheese is mixed into a béchamel sauce of cream and milk and is then mixed with the cooked macaroni, poured into a baking dish, covered with buttered bread crumbs and then baked. It is certainly soft and homogeneous but bland as reruns of the Partridge Family. The cheddar cheese sauce is creamy but has little bright cheese flavor since it’s cooked into the béchamel before baking which kills the flavor of the cheese. The bread crumb topping adds crunch but not much flavor.
So I eventually went with a Betty Crocker recipe from the 1970’s. This recipe adds some grated onion which adds sweetness and a subtle contrasting flavor. The cheese is layered over half the macaroni and then layered again on top. Then the béchamel is poured over the whole casserole. The layer of cheese is not fully incorporated into the béchamel so the cheese flavor is much brighter than the original. Instead of bread crumbs, the crunch comes from the macaroni, cheese and milk solids hardening and caramelizing at the top and along the edges of the baking dish. This forms some delicious “crusties” that will have you scraping at the baking dish with a knife to get every last bit long after the dish has been served.
The problem? The flavor is still one-dimensional and the milk fats curdle adding graininess to the dish which now lacks the creamy consistency of the original. The graininess is made worse if you try to add flavor intensity by using very sharp cheddar. What I wanted was an exterior of crisp, caramelized cheese but an interior that is as creamy as I could make it.
So it was time to get creative.
I wanted some flavor contrast without adding too much complexity or fussiness to the dish since I wanted to preserve that “homeyness”. My solution was to add several 1/2 inch chunks of green apple mixed into the casserole. This adds sweetness and flavor and the apple of course really complements cheddar cheese. I eventually amped up the cheddar cheese flavor by keeping the layers of cheese but doubling the amount and adding that extra cheese to the béchamel. I now had an intensely flavored dish with just enough complexity. Finally, about 10 years ago, the texture problem was solved when sodium citrate became a cooking tool thanks to Nathan Mhyvold and his book on Modernist Cuisine. Sodium citrate, which can be ordered from Amazon, when dissolved in the béchamel keeps the fat and water in emulsion preventing curdling and causing the cheese sauce to thicken. Most recipes when using sodium citrate say you can eliminate the béchamel sauce and replace it with milk or water since you don’t need the flour to thicken the sauce. [The sodium citrate tastes salty and a bit sour. So don’t over-salt the béchamel.)
But remember those crusties? You need the milk solids and the flour to encourage that caramelization and browning on top. So I continued to use the béchamel/cheese sauce adding the sodium citrate just to prevent curdling and adding creaminess.
Finally this year, to create even more flavor contrast, I added pieces of cooked bacon. I didn’t use bacon fat and I didn’t cook the bacon with the cheese sauce because the bacon flavor would be too dominant. I didn’t want bacon flavored macaroni and cheese. I wanted some bacon accents.
And so now I have a macaroni and cheese that maintains the appeal of the traditional versions but with several innovations that improve it.
It only took 40 years.
Wine Pairing: Many experts recommend pairing mac n cheese with an oaked chardonnay because of its buttery flavors. But this dish is too sweet. It made Chardonnay taste thin and tart. The only way to go is an off dry to semi sweet German Riesling with apple notes. The Nik Weis St. Urbans-Hof Estate Old Vines Riesling Mosel 2016 is affordable and available.
Macaroni and Cheese with Apple and Bacon
2 strips good quality bacon, cut into 3/4 inch pieces
8 oz small shell macaroni
3 Tablespoon grated onion
1/4 tsp pepper
3/4 lb shredded sharp cheddar cheese
3/4 lb good quality aged sharp cheddar cheese
2 Granny Smith apples, cored and peeled, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 teaspoons sodium citrate
2 1/2 Tablespoons butter
2 1/2 Tablespoons flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp dry mustrad
2 1/2 cups milk
1 T butter
Heat oven to 375 degrees.
Cook bacon until crisp, place on paper towels to drain and reserve.
Make white sauce: Melt 2 1/2 T butter over low heat. Blend in flour, salt, 1/4 tsp pepper, and dry mustard. Cook until smooth and bubbly. Remove from heat and stir in milk. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Add sodium citrate and then gradually add young cheddar and whisk making sure all of the cheese gets incorporated.
Cook macaroni; place half of macaroni in ungreased 2-quart casserole. Sprinkle with 1/2 of onion, 1/8 tsp pepper, 1/2 of aged cheddar cheese and 1/2 apple. Pour 1/2 cheddar cheese/white sauce over macaroni. Then repeat adding the rest of the macaroni, onion, pepper aged cheddar cheese, and apple. Pour remaining white sauce/cheddar cheese sauce over casserole, insert bacon pieces throughout casserole, and dot with 1 T butter. Cover and bake 15 minutes. Uncover and bake 30 minutes longer or until you’re happy with the caramelization on top and sides of casserole. If the casserole is cooked through and you want more browning on top, place under broiler watching carefully to get desired level of browning.