What’s your notion of the ideal macaroni and cheese? I asked some friends this question, figuring they might have differing opinions on this iconic comfort food. But their answers were all similar: Rich, smooth, velvety, and above all, cheesy. Just the right amount of sauce, they said, not too dry but not swimming in it, either. “And it had better have a crunchy crumb topping,” said my friend Dave. So here you go, Dave and everyone else: macaroni and cheese with all of the above.
Believe it or not, macaroni and cheese has gourmet underpinnings. The cheese sauce is actually a version of béchamel sauce, one of the five major sauces in classical French cuisine. Also called white sauce, it’s nothing more than milk thickened with roux (butter and flour) and in my recipe flavored with onion, thyme, and bay leaf. Add cheese and the French would call it Mornay sauce. I like to add a little Dijon, Worcestershire, and Tabasco, too—each boosts the cheese flavor in its own way.
Three cheeses for three reasons. Extra-sharp cheddar is the big cheese here—I use the sharpest I can find. It has loads of flavor, so you don’t have to use lots of it to taste it, as you might with a milder cheese. That said, I also like to use some mild Monterey Jack because it melts beautifully and gives the sauce a velvety feel. And to the crumb topping I add a little Parmigiano-Reggiano for its salty edge and the distinctive savory flavor it develops as it toasts along with the crumbs.
A great cheese sauce is the basis for flavorful macaroni and cheese, but you can use it in other ways, too—it’s delicious served on steamed vegetables or roasted potatoes.