Every week on Food52.com, we're digging up Genius Recipes -- the ones that make us rethink cooking myths, get us talking, and change the way we cook.
This week's installment: The key to perfectly creamy baked macaroni and cheese, courtesy of Martha Stewart.
No matter how haggard we may feel about our the state of our country -- we, as a nation, will always have macaroni and cheese.
It's a French sauce wrapped around an Italian dried noodle, shot through with cheese. And, according to legend, it was all magically brought together for the first time by Thomas Jefferson. In other words, could there be anything more American?
Ever since Jefferson got his macaroni machine, and possibly even before that, American home cooks have been on a quest to get it right -- we want the bouncy noodles, the creamy cheese sauce, and the crunchy cap.
>>Related: See 9 Speedy, Simple Weeknight Pastas on Shine.
If you find yourself on this quest, just listen to Martha Stewart. Her version is downright perfect, and might even be the most popular recipe in the history of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. (Omnimedia!), by their count.
Among the cardinal Rules of Macaroni and Cheese, Stewart is clear on this: You've got to have a béchamel -- which is really just milk, thickened with flour.
Skip it and the cheese inevitably toughens and the grease breaks free. (A notable exception: Amanda Hesser's truly genius baking sheet mac and cheese, which cooks quickly enough not to destroy the impromptu cheese sauce.)
Resort to American cheese or Velveeta and sure, you lock down creaminess, but along with it comes that tongue-coating nacho cheez stickiness that has no place on a noodle. (Both of these are actually "cheese food", blended up with water and a lot of ingredients we laypeople don't understand).
And so, we must go béchamel, which is really no trouble at all. All you do is quickly sizzle a roux of flour and butter just until it smells toasty; whisk in warm milk and watch it thicken up as you stir; then finally stir in a whole mess of grated cheese. A silken sauce is your payoff -- which is now technically a Mornay, the wholesome role model for cheez food to look up to.
Stewart's recipe nails the béchamel and, unsurprisingly, is spot on in every other way too. Her sauce-to-noodle ratio is appropriately soupy going into the oven, so that the undercooked pasta can soak up some of the sauce as it finishes plumping, without drying the whole thing out.
And her crunchy top layer may be most exciting of all. Instead of the classic speckly layer of bread crumbs, she has us tear white sandwich bread into craggy chunks (or you can dice it all cute like we did, à la Smitten Kitchen). The cubes float on the top of the casserole, toasting into dainty croutons.
Admittedly, this recipe isn't the easiest macaroni on the block. Stewart's original version calls for dirtying four different pots before it even hits the baking dish. But, within reason, you can sneak a few past Martha.
You can heat the butter for the croutons and even the milk in the microwave, if you're feeling wild, and you can make your cheese sauce in the same pot you boiled your pasta. If you're really crafty, you could even bake it in the very same pot.
For a frenzied shortcut, I've even skipped par-boiling the noodles first. It works, kind of -- the pasta cooks up al dente, but it sops up much of the free moisture in the sauce, leaving it more globby than creamy. I can't say I really recommend it -- but it would have been mighty un-American of me not to try.
Martha Stewart's Macaroni and Cheese
Adapted slightly from The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook: The Original Classics (Clarkson Potter, 2007)
Serves 12, but easily halved
6 slices good white bread, crusts removed, torn or diced into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces
5 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
4 1/2 cups grated sharp white cheddar cheese (about 18 ounces)
2 cups grated Gruyere cheese (about 8 ounces) or 1 1/4 cups grated Pecorino Romano cheese (about 5 ounces)
1 pound elbow macaroni (or other small pasta shape)
1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish; set aside. Place bread in a medium bowl. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter (alternately, melt butter in the microwave). Pour butter into bowl with bread, and toss. Set breadcrumbs aside. Pull out 1 1/2 cups of grated cheddar, and 1/2 cup Gruyere or 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano, and reserve.
2. Fill a large pot with water; bring to a boil. Add macaroni; cook 2 to 3 minutes less than manufacturer's directions, until the outside of pasta is cooked and the inside is underdone. (Different brands of macaroni cook at different rates; be sure to read the instructions.) Transfer macaroni to a colander, rinse under cold running water, and drain well. Set aside.
3. In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, heat milk. In the same pot you used for boiling the pasta, melt remaining 6 tablespoons butter over medium heat. When butter bubbles, add flour. Cook, whisking, 1 minute.
4. While whisking, slowly pour in hot milk. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick.
5. Remove pan from heat. Stir in salt, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper, 3 cups cheddar cheese, and 1 1/2 cups Gruyere or 1 cup Pecorino Romano. Stir reserved macaroni into the cheese sauce.
6. Pour mixture into prepared dish. Sprinkle remaining 1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, 1/2 cup Gruyere or 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano, and breadcrumbs over top. Bake until browned on top, about 30 minutes. If after 30 minutes, it's not browned to your liking, broil the topping rather than leaving it in the oven, which may cause the pasta to overcook and sauce to dry out. Transfer dish to a wire rack to cool 5 minutes; serve hot.
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Photos by James Ransom