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I'm one of those people who reads the New York Times Food section, Bon Appetit, Saveur and Food & Wine. Food is a subject about which I can wax poetic, rattle off facts and figures, and explain the significance of the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property to the wine you're currently drinking. (Don't worry, I'm not going to.) I have eaten in Michelin star restaurants and enjoyed those meals. But I'm not a snob.
I'm not a snob because if there is macaroni and cheese (or a comparable item) anywhere on a menu, I'm ordering it. (If there's no macaroni and cheese, I'm going to be disappointed.) It's like a siren song for me. Even in places where I know it's not going to be good, I'm getting it. I know my way around some mac, y'all. This is the ultimate mac.
The stipulations to me saying this is my perfect macaroni and cheese are that 1) it is MY perfect macaroni and cheese, which may not mean that it is YOUR favorite macaroni and cheese and 2) this is not a filler for the hole in my/your heart that exists that can only be filled by Kraft macaroni and cheese.
Here are the things that make it my perfect mac and cheese. The first thing is that you need a 1 to 1 ratio of cheese to pasta. So, if you're doing a pound of dry pasta, you're going to need a pound of cheese. Honestly, I don't want to hear it. We never thought macaroni and cheese was going to be a health food. Get over it and just enjoy your life.
I also want a lot of bread crumbs on top and a healthy layer of caramelized mushrooms and onions in the middle. A lot of people feel strongly that things like macaroni and cheese should be left pure, but I think there are improvements that can and should be made and mushrooms are one of them. I'm just trying to live my best life.
Like I said, this is my perfect mac, not yours. Or, maybe you're going to see the light and get your butt over to my side of the mac & cheese pasture where we can hang out. That's probably your best move, to be honest.
I actually think that everyone has one item that they can't help but order if it's available. For my brother it is literally whatever is the most expensive item on the menu. For my best friend, it's chicken curry. What's your menu kryptonite?
my perfect macaroni and cheese
- 1 pound white mushrooms, sliced thin
- 2 medium onions, cut into thin rings
- 7 tbsp butter
- 3/4 pound of the sharpest cheddar cheese you can find, grated
- 1/4 pound gruyere, grated
- 1 pound pasta of any shape you want
- 2 tbsp flour
- 2 cups milk, warmed
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 cup panko bread crumbs
- 1/4 cup parmesan cheese
Caramelize the onions and mushrooms. I do this in two separate pans because overcrowding causes steaming and also because I find caramelizing to be intensely relaxing and therapeutic. Cheaper than a professional, y'all.
Start the onions first, because they'll take longer. Melt 2 tbsp of butter over medium heat, then add the onions to the pan, tossing to coat evenly in butter. If you don't feel like there's enough liquid in the pan, add a little more butter. You can't really mess this up. Stir over medium heat for about 10 minutes, then turn down the heat a about 1 notch. If they seem like they're burning, turn down the heat more. Continue stirring regularly for 20-25 minutes until the onions are a deep amber and have almost the consistency of jam.
Follow the same strategy with the mushrooms, but remember that they will release a lot of liquid, so they won't need as much butter. Let the liquid cook off, then continue cooking. You may need a lower heat level to keep these from burning. Basically, you want to cook the shit out these so they're just little flavor bombs of mushroomy goodness.
For the cheese sauce: Melt 3 butter over medium-high heat in a heavy bottom saucepan. Once it is fully melted and bubbling, lower the heat to medium-low and add the flour. Use a whisk to mix together energetically. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and continue whisking (you'll have a paste-like substance). Continue whisking until the mixture has darkened a few shades and no longer smells like raw flour. Use your nose, you'll notice the difference. Add a splash of the milk and continue whisking until smooth. Continue adding and stirring until smooth. You'll be able to add larger and larger splashes of milk. Once all the milk is mixed in, stir in the cheddar and gruyere, then season with salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cook the pasta according to the package, but drain about 1 minute before it's fully cooked. The pasta will absorb some of the cheese and finish cooking that way. Drain, then stir into the saucepan filled with sauce. Coat the pasta with the sauce, then add half to a casserole dish. Spread the mushrooms and onions on top of this layer of pasta, then add the remaining pasta. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and parmesan and salt and pepper, then bake 7-10 minutes, just long enough for the top to get crispy and golden brown.