For some reason, a recipe for "Crusty Macaroni and Cheese" has been lingering atop the New York Times Web site's list of most-e-mailed articles. The recipe ran on Jan. 4; as of this writing, some nine days later, it's perched in fourth place on the list of the month's top forwards. Has it been a slow news cycle? (Samuel Alito—shown up by cheddar.) Have I underestimated the cultural cachet of the word "crusty"? Or has the nation just settled into its annual post-holiday hibernation, when thoughts turn to stews, casseroles, and Super Bowl fare?
Whatever the explanation, something about the recipe looked off to me. It accompanied an article in which Julia Moskin, whose food reporting I greatly admire, detailed her search for the ideal macaroni and cheese: "Nothing more than tender elbows of pasta suspended in pure molten cheddar, with a chewy, golden-brown crust of cheese on top." A noble goal, certainly. (Kraft was probably trying to evoke something similar when it renamed the dish "cheese and macaroni" in the 1980s.) But Moskin's recipe has odd proportions: a whopping 24 ounces of cheese to a pound of pasta, with just a drizzling of milk to moisten the casserole.
Moskin offers up the tantalizing possibility that delicious macaroni and cheese can be made without white sauce, or béchamel, the butter/flour/milk goop that binds pasta and cheddar together in a traditional mac and cheese. For backup, she quotes a cranky John Thorne, the iconoclastic food writer, who calls white sauce "a noxious paste of flour-thickened milk" that diminishes "this dish flavored with a tiny grating of cheese."
And herein lies the secret to the recipe's popularity. Novice cooks setting out to make this seemingly simple dish may be disheartened by recipes that begin, "Make a roux." "Crusty Macaroni and Cheese" posits that you can simply skip that step. Could macaroni and cheese be as simple as that? Macaroni, plus cheese, baked?
I tried both of the recipes that accompanied Moskin's article. Neither "Crusty Macaroni and Cheese" nor "Creamy Macaroni and Cheese" (the less popular companion recipe) requires white sauce. The creamy one substitutes a cup of cottage cheese—a reasonable approach; various cooks, one of Moskin's sources notes, use ricotta, crème fraiche, eggs, or evaporated milk instead of white sauce. It turned out well enough.
Meanwhile, old Crusty had a measly two-thirds of a cup of milk to moisten it. It just didn't seem right. So I made it, twice.
"Crusty" is no exaggeration; the two cups of cheese used to top the casserole shrink-wrapped itself around the uppermost elbows. Eaten piping hot it was a little chewy and a little crispy; after the dish had cooled just a hair, the top layer had firmed to a leathery shield. The noodles below sweated fat, which collected unappealingly at the bottom of my earthenware dish. On my first attempt, I took the high road and used the all-cheddar option presented in the recipe. Bits of cheese clung clumpily to the elbows. Cheese that's not processed—and especially cheddar—needs help to achieve an ideal state of ooziness. And without the moderation of something creamy—ricotta, crème fraiche, or I think, ideally, white sauce—that much cooked cheddar loses some nuance and tastes a bit caustic. When, on the second go-round, I used a mixture of American cheese and cheddar, the texture was smoother, but the dish tasted unpleasantly unctuous: more fatty than cheesy.
So while I share Moskin's pro-cheese stance, I remain unconvinced that cheese can stand alone, with only a modicum of milk at its side. For my casseroles, I'll stick with my not-so-noxious paste of flour-thickened milk. With a scratch of nutmeg and a little cayenne, not to mention all that cheese, it's pretty yummy, really.