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Mac N’ Cheese

Hot & Creamy

That’s the way I like it, even better when it’s a little salty.  Not fancy though, definitely not fancy.  I like it about as down and as dirty as you can get it.  Don’t try to lure me with snooty, expensive details.  Tease me with cheese, Velveeta to be exact.

I just love Mac & Cheese!  It’s one of my favorite comfort foods and with this time of the year being as nippy as it is, you can rest assured that there is a little block of that orange rubberized heaven in my cabinet right now.  And the best part is, I only need 4 ingredients and about 20 minutes.  (Give yourself at least a half hour if you are doing it for the first time.)

I have been many places in recent years that have tried to turn good ol’ Mac & Cheese into a gourmet meal.  I have had it from local pubs to $500 dinners and I can tell you with extreme certainty that Mac & Cheese is done best with the simplest of ingredients; mac, cheese, milk and salt.  Please, if you would, leave the truffles and the gold leafing out of it.  

People are always so surprised when I tell them I use Velveeta.  It’s the best, and I like the best.  When you’re hankering, you can go on the web or open any cookbook that has a Mac & Cheese recipe and find ingredients like flour and instructions on how to make a roux.  Right there and then, I know I’m in trouble.  That’s just not what I want.  I want traditional Mac & Cheese.  I want something smooth and creamy, something that slides across the tongue, leaving a warm, salty aftertaste. 

Flour based sauces are lumpy.  Lumpy doesn’t slide.  Flour/roux based sauces clump and separate if cooked too long and always separate when reheated.  Have you ever gotten a crock of Mac & Cheese that seemed to have a little oil oozing out of it?  That’s the result of a roux based sauce and a fancy melted cheese.  You don’t notice the lumps as much ‘cause, well, it’s Mac & Cheese.  And while I seem to be insulting these dishes, I’m not.  Almost all the time, they have wonderful flavors, they’re tasty, they’re just not Mac & Cheese.  Mac & Cheese is smooth.

We all think of Cheddar for Mac & Cheese – it’s orange.  But that’s really where the coupling ends.  When Cheddar melts, it separates.  The milky solids release an oily secretion when heated and there is just about nothing you can do to get them back together again.  So while Cheddar is the likely thought, it’s really not the right product.  There are other, softer cheeses that lend themselves to melting, Gruyere is a popular one you see in Mac dishes, but they’re all pretty much going to have the same result.  They need to be shredded, and melted into a flour based milk mixture.  I like the chop, dump and stir method much better.

Notice how I referred to Cheddar as not the right “product”.  That’s because what we really need is something more produced, manufactured.  Something processed to melt evenly without separation.  The right tool for the right job.  For those of you who want to argue with me that Velveeta isn’t cheese, read the package.  I’m not calling it the health food of the century, Lady, but it’s made with milk, milk protein and milk fat.  Would I serve it with crackers, probably not.  Would I melt it into some warm milk and coat yummy swirly noodles with it, heck fucking yeah!  So should you.

It’s Velveeta’s job to melt.  Did I mention that it requires no refrigeration at all, lasts an eternity and comes in cute little boxes that fit just dandy in your pantry?  (You’d think I was getting’ paid by these guys – I wish.)  Both Velveeta and Macaroni are great pantry regulars.  When you really have nothing to make for dinner, you could literally pull this one right out.  I don’t know if you are like me, but in case of emergencies I always have a box of powdered milk in the back of an out of the way cabinet.  My Mom forced us to drink the stuff when I was a kid so I’m kinda used to it.  But as a Mother, I have been thankful for that box on more than a few occasions.  So if you have some stashed, you’re really hooked up.

I almost always prefer Barilla when it comes to pasta because if you follow the directions on the box, you get perfect pasta every time.  Their elbows have ridges which seem to hold onto the cheese nicely.  You can use any cut of macaroni you like if you want to forgo the original.  Some cuts do work better than others though, spaghetti isn’t a real charmer in this dish, I’d avoid linguini too.  Spirals will work great, so will short rigatoni or anything with ridges, nooks and crannies for the cheese to seep into.  My kids like the ones in the shape of Spongebob’s head.  Whatever shape you decide to use, just be sure to cook it a little “Al Dente”.   You don’t want the macaroni to be mushy.

Salt being the only seasoning for this dish and Velveeta being a little bland, you really got to get the salt “in” there.  The best way is to infuse the pasta with it during the cooking process.  Translation: add the salt to the cooking water before adding the macaroni.

You will need:
1 Box Macaroni – Barilla Elbows
8oz. Velveeta – cut into 1 inch cubes
2 Cups Milk
½ Tsp. Salt

Prepare the Macaroni as directed on the box.  Barilla’s Elbows take 7 minutes for Al Dente.  Strain and set aside.  Get the water on first, so you can work on the cheese while it’s cooking.

Heat the milk SLOWLY in a small saucepan.  Use a medium heat and make sure not to let the milk boil.  When the milk begins to simmer – little wisps seem to be rising – add the chunks of cheese.  Stir until all the cheese chunks have melted.   Tip: if you are the impatient type, cut the cheese into smaller cubes – they’ll melt faster.  Since Velveeta is stored at room temperature, it will melt easily.

When all the cheese has melted, remove the sauce from the heat and taste.  If you feel that it needs salt, add a ¼ Tsp.

Sometimes a pinch of cayenne will round out the flavors nicely, but we don’t want to get too carried away.

But, if we did want to get a little carried away.  Just sayin’, if we did, there are a few things you can do to a Mac & Cheese without compromising her integrity.  After all, she is topless.  If you were looking for a little extra on top, you could, sprinkle a little Parmesan Cheese by itself or mix some Parm up with some breadcrumbs, but be careful, it’s a slippery slope. 

Re-heating would be the enemy here.  And you could take this pristine beauty and in a flash of a too-hot oven turn her into a lumpy Ogre.  Sorry Shrek.  Like most things, if you’re gonna dance with danger, do so carefully.  If you top it with a dusting of plain Parmesan cheese, odds are, it will simply melt in right there.  However if you want a breadcrumb topping, it’s got to go back in the oven.  Correction, under the broiler, but you gotta do it fast and keep a strict eye on it.

DO NOT pre-heat your broiler.  Transfer the Mac & Cheese to an oven proof dish and sprinkle the top with a mixture of equal parts grated Parmesan Cheese and Breadcrumbs.  Start with 3 Tbs. each.  Sprinkle liberally and place in a cold oven, approximately 3 inches from the broiler.  Broil for 2 minutes or until the top becomes golden brown.

Now, as I mentioned before, re-heating is the bitch here.  It is best to make this dish fresh and serve it right away.  However, if there are leftovers, there’s a great trick for reheating. 

Store your leftovers in a Glad zip freezer bag.  When you’re ready to reheat, pour a tiny shot of milk into the bag and place the bag in a micro safe bowl.  Nuke for 25 seconds and then check the bag – give it a little shake.  Believe it or not, it really heats up fast.  And this way it’s easier to reheat without separating.  If you prefer to store the leftovers in a Tupperware, just remember that little shot of milk.

Sticking with the reheating is a bitch theory, if you are the get it done ahead of time type, I have a solution for you too.  Go ahead and make the macaroni and the cheese sauce ahead of time and set them aside, separately, covered.  Refill the pasta pot with hot water and turn it on for a pre-boil.  (Pre-boiled water reheats faster later than really hot water from the tap.)  Just before it’s time to ring the chow bell, bring the water to a boil and throw the pasta in for just a few seconds.  The sauce will reheat well on a low temperature, be sure to give it a good stir.  I like to throw it all back into the pasta pot and serve straight from there.

Stay warm and enjoy!


PS.  A special thank you to my sweet BOTH friends who came to the GYC last month.  I had such a ball with all of you and I love to know that you’re out there boating and reading and eating.   J

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