02 July 2012

Eats: miracle mac n’ cheese

Happy Monday, everyone! Happy very hot Monday. Mr. P and I were fortunate to spend the weekend in the great not-so-white north, a.k.a, Wisconsin, thus trading the 108-degree temps in St. Louis for the relatively balmy 90-degree weather in Madison. I am not being sarcastic when I say it was downright pleasant, especially now that we are back home in the triple-digit heat.

Yes, I still like summer more than winter. This should tell you how much I hate winter.

Anyway, this is all a bit unfortunate for the Fourth of July holiday coming up this week. Because of the awful awful heat, the drought, and the subsequent “burn ban”, a lot of cities are cancelling their Independence Day fireworks celebrations. This weather also puts the kibosh on grilling – at least, you won’t catch me manning an open flame in 100+ degree temps! And although I’ve never been that big of a fireworks fan, and at best a casual observer of the Fourth of July holiday... it all just feels wrong. No fireworks? No hot dogs? Hmm. We need some indoor Americana up in here, stat.

So for that, I’m turning to my favorite quintessential American dish: macaroni and cheese! And guess what... the recipe is easy, velveeta-free, and unlike my last disappointing attempt, IT WORKS.

It’s an Independence Day Miracle!

Speaking of, that’s the name of the source recipe: Miracle Mac n’ Cheese. And it really did seem too easy to be true, just like every other “shortcut” macaroni and cheese recipe I’ve tried. For starters, aside from cheese, these are the only other ingredients:

One pound elbow noodles (double the original recipe), four cups of milk. No velveeta, no butter, no flour, no cream, no Greek yogurt. How is that even possible?

Here’s how. All the best homemade cheese sauces involve a roux, which is a flour-butter paste cooked until the flour no longer tastes raw. The starchy flour is the key thickening ingredient once the milk and cheese are added. But hey, have you noticed how pasta water becomes cloudy as it boils? That’s starch liberated from the noodles. This recipe cuts out the roux middleman by cooking the pasta in the milk.

Yeah, so that makes sense, and yet... I did not think it would work as well as everyone claimed. But, I gave it a try anyway, because I’m a sucker for that elusive, perfect mac n’ cheese recipe. So, I started by dumping the milk and noodles in a pot together.

Then I slowly brought the milk to a simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently but keeping the pot covered as much as possible. Once the milk was simmering, I turned the heat down to low and watched the magic begin.

It’s important to stir to keep from sticking, but also important to keep it covered so the liquid doesn’t evaporate. The noodles will start to absorb the liquid, yes, but it also creates a creamy, starchy coating on the noodles.

Admittedly, it does take a bit longer than traditional boiling-in-water. Bringing the milk to a boil slowly took about ten minutes, and it took another fifteen minutes for the noodles to absorb almost all of the liquid. But once I had fully cooked noodles and creamy sauce, it was time to stir in the cheese: two cups of shredded cheddar (remember, I doubled the source), plus a bit more milk just to keep it creamy:

Whoa. WHOA! “Mr. P! MR. P! I think it worked! Oh my gosh, it worked! JUST LIKE THEY SAID IT WOULD!”

After some salt and pepper, plus a dash of garlic and red pepper, it was ready. I couldn’t believe it! Yes, there was hand-flapping involved.

If I were to change anything about this, I’d use a bit more milk at the very beginning, as the noodles were a bit more “al dente” as opposed to Mr. P’s preferred noodle style, “mushy”. He also didn’t love the super-starchy sauce, but oh, I did.

To reach our green-vegetable quota, I tossed in some roasted broccoli:

You guys, I finally have a perfect shortcut mac & cheese recipe! It’s been a long time coming, eh? I hope you can enjoy this treat during your celebrations this week! While you could exercise your American right to the blue box of cheese powder to which you add a stick of butter... I promise, there is no need. Trust this mac n’ cheese connoisseur, experience the miracle, and enjoy!