Mac and cheese has a problem.
It is, at it's heart, comfort food. Severely comforting. Individually both pasta and cheese do a fine job of Al-Bundy-on-the-couching the eater, but when combined they're capable of accessing only the best connotations of comatose and delivering them in the most soothing lullaby of fat and carbs. Mac and cheese combined is one of the nature's more sublime anesthetics.
This is, obviously, not the problem mac and cheese has. The issue lies in its creation. Traditionally, if you want to make mac and cheese at home you have two options:
- Make the stuff in the blue box
- Make it from scratch
Number one has a very obvious upside: it's fast and easy. Boil and drain noodles, add magic powder, milk, and fake butter. Stir. Not hard to do at all. Which is good because the point with mac and cheese is to be pleasantly tired after eating it, not exhausted from cooking and cleaning before you even sit down.
The problem with mac and cheese from a blue box is that it tastes like if you somehow made edible Lars Ulrich's snare tone on St. Anger. And I use the word edible there very loosely. In fact, I'm sure the only reason you haven't seen it featured on every episode of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern is because there's still debate as to whether or not it qualifies as food. You know that one scene in the movie Alive where they reluctantly decide eat their dead friends rather than starve to death? Well, if you watch it closely you can actually see piles of blue mac boxes unopened in the wrecked plane behind them, it's just that the stuff is so terrible it didn't even enter the debate of "cannibalism v. starve to death." If you liked it as a kid then your whole childhood was a lie and, well, I'm sorry for you. And keep in mind, I kinda like the flavor of American processed cheese. If the box stuff tasted like American cheese, I'd be cool with it. But it doesn't. There's no flavor of cheese or "cheese" anywhere in there. It's just sadness and mistakes. The pasta would be better served by just adding some real butter and throwing everything else in the garbage where it belongs.
So, obviously then, choice number one up there is out. Which leaves us with option two: make mac and cheese from scratch. To do this you melt fat, add flour, stir, add milk, infuse with stuff, heat, stir until it thickens, slowly add grated cheese, add noodles that you've pulled from the water while still on the crunchy side of al dente, top with something crunchy, bake, let cool, enjoy. If you've never gone this route, I would encourage you to do so. It teaches you how to make a roux and béchamel, which is good for general cooking knowledge.
The problem though is that making traditional mac and cheese is time consuming, over an hour start to finish, and there's always a formidable pile of dirty dishes left in its wake. Plus, it's not cheap. Every time I make mac and cheese this way I somehow manage to spend like $30. Sure I get a whole lot of it for that amount of money, but frankly, I don't want a whole lot of mac and cheese. A weeks worth of mac for me is exactly one serving. Then I'm good for a while. So that $30 huge meal normally gets given away to grateful friends, which I admit is extremely nice of me and yes, my reward is in heaven, but still, what if I just want mac and cheese right now for me, for $5?
Thus, mac and cheese's problem: it's either easy and terrible or delicious but time consuming and expensive. Both prevent it from being the comforting dish that it's supposed to be.
Because I figured out how to make mac and cheese that tastes better than the traditional stuff, takes the exact same amount of time and skill as the crap from the blue box, has only 3 ingredients, and can be made entirely in one single pan.
I know. I know.
Here's what you'll need:
- 4 oz pasta (anything would work, but something small and in the genus of macaroni is preferable)
- 4 oz grated cheese (2/3 Monterey Jack, 1/3 whatever else)
- 5g sodium citrate
First thing you need to do is boil your pasta. This is easier than you've always thought. Disperse your dry noodles on the bottom of a skillet and cover with cold water. Place on a burner over high heat and stir occasionally. Add a teaspoon of salt. Click here if you don't believe that this will work.
Grate an assortment of cheeses until you have a pile like this. If you're like me you'll be tempted to add a bunch of really strong flavored cheeses, but don't. In a traditional mac recipe, you add cheese to a béchamel whose starches prevent the proteins in the cheese from coagulating, thus leaving you with a smooth sauce. It works mostly great, but in addition to inhibiting coagulation, all that starch and milk also inhibit flavor. To counter this you add a ton of really sharp cheddar and funky French cheeses so that something eventually stands out in the final product.
But in this recipe a few grams of sodium citrate dissolved in water does all the heavy lifting that a whole pot of béchamel used to. Thus, there's nothing blocking flavors. So if you add only strong cheeses, you will end up with an unpleasantly strong dish that's delicious for about three bites but then totally overwhelms your palate. Instead, primarily use the mellow flavored Monterey Jack and then accent that with your favorite cheese(s). The upside of this is that though you use mostly cheap cheese and only a little bit of the pricier stuff, the end result is a sauce that has more cheese flavor than any $30 béchamel you've ever made.
But in order for this all to work you HAVE TO BUY SODIUM CITRATE. Listen, I know you think this is weird, but it's not. You have baking powder in your pantry right now. Do you actually know how that works? No. I bet you don't. But you use it and it works regardless and that's all you need to know, right? Right. So then buy another magic powder that works and don't worry about it. A lifetime supply costs $15. BUY IT RIGHT HERE!
5g of citrate is basically a scant spoonful. So if you're not Jesse Pinkman and you don't have a scale that's accurate down to tenths of grams and whatnot, just measure out a scant spoonful.
Remember that pasta you started in cold water? Well after about 12 minutes of occasional stirring, it should look like this. Al dente with most of the water absorbed. If there isn't a cup of water left on the bottom then add a little hot water to make a generous half cup. Or really, just look at how much water is in there and think, if that was cheesy sauce would it be enough? If not, add some more water, but then stop a little short. If you don't I can almost guarantee you'll add too much the first time. I did. Twice. It's better to err on not enough water here. You can always add a bit more later.
Push some pasta aside and dissolve the citrate into the water. Stir all that up real good. Now over medium-low heat, disperse a hefty pinch of cheese over the pasta then stir until it melts. Repeat until you're out of cheese.
And holy hell look at that! Perfectly smooth, creamy mac and cheese finished in 15 minutes with only one pan to clean!
If your sauce is a little watery don't worry, just turn the heat up to medium and keep stirring for a few minutes. Evaporating water and pasta starch will work together to thicken it up. If it's way too watery, even after a solid few minutes of stirring, just dump some sauce out and keep stirring. Maybe add a bit more cheese just in case. Don't worry too much though, there are a lot of points here where you can save this dish. Your best friend here is stirring and patience.
If there's not enough sauce, add a splash of water and stir, then repeat until you're happy.
This recipe works with any of the add-ins you normally like with mac and cheese. I threw some diced jalapeños in there and was glad I did. A traditional mac recipe often calls for the addition of mustard powder, nutmeg, and a dash of cayenne. If you want to add that stuff, do so right after the citrate and before the cheese. I topped it with some toasted bread crumbs and a little sprinkling of crappy grated parmesan cheese because it was one in the morning and I was incapable of any convincing counter to "why the hell not?"
Eat this while sitting on your couch in your most comfortable pants. Then take the nap you've always deserved.