My perfect macaroni and cheese

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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.

crispy bits are very important here, y'all.

crispy bits are very important here, y'all.

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.

rotini is a good pasta shape here because there are nooks and crannies for the cheese to hang out in.  Cheese hang spaces are important.

rotini is a good pasta shape here because there are nooks and crannies for the cheese to hang out in.  Cheese hang spaces are important.

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.


How to Be Better Than Everyone: Homemade Pasta

Before we start talking about pasta, you should scroll to the bottom of this page and sign up for weekly A Woman Who Eats emails, so you never, ever miss any information on snacks you should be putting in your mouth.

Pasta is my favorite food.  So much so that one of my best friends is convinced that it is the only thing my family eats.

you don't even need a pasta roller, you can just roll it like a scroll, cut it and then hang it over your knife (see next pic)

you don't even need a pasta roller, you can just roll it like a scroll, cut it and then hang it over your knife (see next pic)

Can I come over for dinner? Are you having pasta?

The answer to both is always yes.  Because 1) my family does love pasta and I have inherited that gene and 2) because the beauty of pasta is that you can always just make a little more.

let the double scrolls unroll and then consider whether or not you want to use this pasta as curtains. (you do)

let the double scrolls unroll and then consider whether or not you want to use this pasta as curtains. (you do)

I like your average, run of the mill, dried pasta just as much as the next girl.  But homemade pasta will help you love pasta even more (as if you needed that) AND it will help you exert your superiority over everyone you know.  It is a little known fact that if you make your pasta from scratch, you automatically become a few degrees better than everyone around you.  You get even more superiority if you share it, because then you become a generous domestic goddess (or god.)

Another pro tip:  Invite all your friends over and have them help you.  That's what I did.  We had a great time making it, and everyone was very impressed by my domestic abilities.  (The excitement wore off quickly when they discovered they didn't get to eat any.  Oops.)

I know this seems like making a good thing only slightly better by adding a lot of work but it isn't and you should just ignore whatever you have going on and make this pasta. And then maybe you should make one of these pestos to put on your pasta.  

I don't want to pressure anyone, but you should probably make a double batch and freeze half.  There's nothing more adult than having homemade freezer food - except maybe paying your own bills, but who is keeping track, anyway?

pasta snuggles are in order.

pasta snuggles are in order.

Homemade pasta:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1-2 tablespoons water

Place the flour on a clean surface in a mountain, then hollow out the middle into a bowl-like shape. Crack the eggs into your flour bowl and mix them using a fork or small whisk.  The eggs will slowly mix with the flour.  Continue mixing until the eggs are mostly combined with the flour, then begin kneading with your hands. Knead until the dough is smooth and yellow, about 7 minutes. It should not be sticky or overly dry - add more flour or a teaspoon of water if you don't think it looks right. (follow your instincts, y'all.  pasta is very forgiving.) Wrap the dough in plastic and let it sit for 20-30 minutes, until it pops back into shape when poked.  (If you have a stand mixer, simply throw all your ingredient in the bowl and let it go, using the dough hook.  Scrape down the sides and the hook occasionally.)

Flour your surface and rip off a piece of dough about the size of a tennis ball.  Flatten slightly with you hands, then roll thin with a rolling pin (or a bottle of wine, no one is judging). You want an oval.  When it's as thin as you can get it (think about how fettuccine normally looks, or look at the pictures above), flour both sides liberally and roll the two shorter sides in towards themselves, like a scroll.  Cut the dough rolls into slices about the width of your pinky fingernail, then slip your knife under the slices and let the rolls fall over either side of the knife.  If they're a little sticky, use your fingers to unroll them the rest of the way. Add more flour and place the strips of pasta on a floured cookie sheet in a swirled bird's nest shape -  what you can hang on a chefs knife is about one serving of pasta. Repeat this process with the rest of your dough. 

To cook - boil in a large pot of salted water for about 3 minutes, then drain.

To freeze - place your cookie sheet of pasta birds nests in the freezer, covered with plastic wrap. Freeze until solid.  Once the nests are hard, you can put them in a larger plastic bag for more efficient storage. They'll last at least a month.  From frozen, the pasta will need to boil for about 7 minutes.

trying to drive home the whole pasta curtains thing.  really.  someone try it.

trying to drive home the whole pasta curtains thing.  really.  someone try it.