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3 Methods for Macaroni & Cheese

Want to know how chefs elevate homey food? Here are three creative takes on macaroni and cheese

by Amy Albert

fromFine Cooking
Issue 62

For a long time, I was reluctant (especially among my foodier friends) to admit how much I like to make macaroni and cheese. But the more I talked with chefs I know, the clearer it became that macaroni and cheese is exactly the kind of food that they like to cook for themselves, for family, and for friends on nights off. I started fantasizing: Just how would a chef put his or her own special signature on this dish to make it deluxe?  

I asked three chefs to create their own favorite version of macaroni and cheese. Each chef gave me a deliciously different take: Not only are the flavors different, but each version is bound and thickened with a different method: with a white sauce, with a savory custard, and with cream.

Ben Barker brings it together with a classic white sauce

This mac and cheese, a luxurious version of a traditional southern accompaniment for ham, is equally good as a main course with a simple salad. I like to use Maytag Blue, Gruyère, Monterey Jack, and Parmigiano Reggiano—cheeses that might not be traditional for macaroni and cheese but that I love for their robust flavor. I start with the traditional binder for classic mac and cheese: béchamel, or white sauce—really just a mixture of butter and flour into which you whisk hot milk and cook slowly until thickened. There’s no question that this combination of classic béchamel and bold mix of cheeses creates an over-the-top mac and cheese. So, as a main course, I recommend serving it with an arugula salad tossed with a straightforward vinaigrette. Sparkling wine or Champagne is the perfect drink to accompany the dish since it counters the richness.  —Ben Barker

Robert Del Grande makes a savory custard with a Tex-Mex kick

On my night off, I like “cocktail food”: not weiners on toothpicks, but food I can prepare and then let simmer or bake for 40 minutes or so—long enough to relax and have a cocktail before dinner. It’s the antithesis of what I do during the week, which is to stand behind a line and cook under pressure.  

With mac and cheese as the goal, I thought of comfort and nostalgia. Comfort food in Texas means cheese and chiles and their creamy-zingy combination. And then, I thought, what about corn tortillas? So, I chopped some up, along with the chiles and cilantro, for added texture and aroma. Eggs that form a savory custard seemed a natural way to bind it all together.

I love the anticipation that builds when preparing this dish. You smell the chiles as they char and think, oh, this is going to be good. Then when you pulse the chiles and cilantro together, you notice that the bright green color is pretty great. And when the dish starts to bake, the aromas build, and you know you’re in for something really good.  

This casseroleis so full of flavor that all you’ll need to serve with it is roasted pork loin or roasted chicken, simply seasoned with salt and pepper. To drink, I like rustic red wines—Syrah, Zinfandel, Grenache—or a full-flavored beer such as Pilsen or pale ale.  —Robert Del Grande

Joanne Killeen and George Germon keep it simple with Parmesan and cream

We love American-style macaroni and cheese as much as anyone else, but whenever pasta is involved, our thoughts turn to Italy, so mac and cheese becomes ziti with Parmigiano Reggiano. As the thickener, we just let the cheese melt right into the cream. We bake the dish briefly at high heat so the intense heat of the oven works to reduce the cream and thicken it slightly.

Quality is crucial when you have such a simple recipe with so few ingredients, so we encourage you to use genuine Parmigiano Reggiano. (A lesser Parmesan or a Grana Padano may have a higher salt content, which could make this dish too heavy, too salty, or both.) Buy a chunk rather than a container of grated cheese. Look for a chunk that has “Parmigiano Reggiano” stamped on the rind. It should be very firm and straw colored with whitish flecks and deliciously fragrant but not at all pungent, with a nutty flavor and tiny crunchy granules. For the pasta itself, we like Barilla, De Cecco, and Del Verde brands.

We serve this in individual shallow dishes, but a large gratin dish works, too. Just be sure it’s shallow: If the dish is deep, the pasta on the bottom will become too soft and the top noodles may get too brown. You could serve this as a small main course and follow it with a salad, but we offer our baked pasta as a first course by itself, following with something light like roasted chicken, baked salmon, or breaded cutlets.  —Johanne Killeen and George Germon

Photos: Scott Phillips

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