Some people like stovetop macaroni and cheese, but I've always preferred the baked. It can be jazzed up in all sorts of ways, but this is my basic nothing-in-it-kids-can-object-to Baked Macaroni and Cheese. Sharp white cheddar tastes great. Sometimes I use three or four different cheeses. This week I used a 1-pound block of Tillamook medium cheddar because that's what I had on hand. (Tastes great and has no hormones.) Whatever you use, shred it yourself. The pre-shredded kind is coated with something to keep it from sticking together, and that surely has some effect on the finished dish. (If you know precisely what, do tell me. I like to know these things!)
You can put some breadcrumbs on top before baking, but I don't bother because I'll be getting enough bread in the bread I'll be eating with it. I've always enjoyed macaroni and cheese as a main dish, but in my travels in the South I noticed it was never missing from a long list of "sides." Trouble is, when macaroni and cheese is on the menu, that's all I want. Well, that and a biscuit! Maybe a glass of iced tea, but not "sweet tea."
Tell me how you feel about macaroni and cheese and, if you're from the South, whether you're a fan of sweet tea. And tell me if you have experienced graininess* in your macaroni and cheese and what you did about it.
Baked Macaroni and Cheese
(Makes 6 to 8 main dish servings, 12 side servings)
1 1-pound package elbow macaroni
1 tablespoon salt
1 quart milk (will add 1/2 cup heavy cream next time)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 pound medium cheddar, shredded
1 In 5 1/2-quart Dutch oven (I use Le Creuset Round French Oven), bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add macaroni and salt; cook for the time specified on the package, or until tender. In heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan, heat milk to a simmer; do not boil. Drain pasta in colander and set aside. (It will clump together as it cools, but not to worry, the clumps will separate when you stir the pasta into the sauce. Or you can drizzle on a couple teaspoons of olive oil or melted butter and give it a toss right in the colander.) Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter 13x9x2-inch baking dish (or two smaller, shallow baking dishes).
2 In same Dutch oven, heat butter until foaming but not browning. Add flour, salt, dry mustard, pepper and cayenne; whisk for about a minute. Gradually whisk in hot milk, whisking constantly until mixture slowly comes to a full boil. Reduce heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, for about 7 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool slightly for 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in cheese. When cheese is fully melted, stir in the cooked macaroni.
3 Pour into prepared baking dish. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes, or until bubbly. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
* I must admit this batch of macaroni and cheese was not perfect. It was just a little bit grainy, a common problem with macaroni and real cheese. I'm told using whole milk (I only had 2%) will help prevent graininess. Maybe adding about a half a cup of heavy cream would help. Also, replacing 1/4 of the cheddar with processed cheese is recommended for that reason. I'm sorry, but I can't bring myself to eat processed "cheese;" would rather have a little graininess! But next time I'll try using 1/4 Monterey Jack cheese. Since it is a very smooth, melty cheese, maybe it will have the same smoothing effect as the processed cheese without the ick factor!