Macaroni and cheese occupies a very particular place in the American cultural landscape. Everyone seems to love it—save vegans—yet people feel compelled to mess with the dish in ways that make it divisive. For instance, a few years ago, urban media types were dropping $55 on truffled mac and cheese at the Waverly Inn in New York. Earlier this year, the same urban media types were deriding Paula Deen’s deep-fried version when Deen announced that she had diabetes.
Why must we use macaroni and cheese as ammunition in silly culture wars when there is so much everyone can agree on? First, we all know macaroni and cheese has widely documented palliative properties: Google “‘macaroni and cheese’ ‘the ultimate comfort food,’” and you’ll get 831,000 hits. Second, mac and cheese is terrible for you, period, whether it’s deep-fried or truffle-dusted; it is impossible to imagine another dish that packs in as much butterfat from as many sources as mac and cheese. Third, homemade macaroni and cheese is infinitely better than Kraft’s boxed abomination.
Is homemade macaroni and cheese one-pot, one-step cooking? No, it is not; you will dirty a few pots and pans and sacrifice an hour or so of your time. But you will end up with a dish rich and delicious enough to salve any and all class anxieties. In its potential to bring us all together, macaroni and cheese is matched only by the music videos of Beyoncé.
The basic components of macaroni and cheese are indisputable: partially cooked pasta, béchamel sauce (a not-as-hard-as-it-sounds concoction of butter, flour, and milk), and cheese. However, there are a few details that reasonable folks can disagree on: cheese type, consistency, and topping.
Smoked Gouda is the most delicious cheese in the world, so obviously it is the way to go. But if, for some odd reason that we need not get into here, you do not love smoked Gouda the way you should, just substitute something similarly semi-hard, like cheddar, Emmental, or Monterey Jack. (The rules of cheese texture are not hard and fast; generally speaking, if you can grate it easily, you can use it in macaroni and cheese.)
Consistency-wise, I like my macaroni and cheese creamy and soft, but if you prefer it brick-like, that’s not difficult to arrange: Use less milk in your béchamel (say, 3 cups instead of 4). As for toppings, it’s hard to imagine anyone not wanting an extra layer of cheese, but breadcrumbs—starchy, buttery overkill—are completely optional.
Smoked Gouda Macaroni and Cheese
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Time: About 1 hour, partially unattended
Butter or oil for greasing the pan
1 pound macaroni or other short cut pasta
1 quart (4 cups) whole milk
3 bay leaves
Pinch cayenne pepper
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter (plus 2 optional tablespoons)
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 pound smoked Gouda or other semi-hard cheese, grated
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs (optional)
1. Heat the oven to 375°F and grease a 9- by 13-inch pan. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Add the macaroni and cook until just beginning to turn tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.
2. Put the milk, bay leaves, cayenne, and some salt and pepper in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. As it warms up, put the 4 tablespoons butter in another large saucepan over medium heat. When it melts, add the flour and cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture turns golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Gradually whisk the warm milk mixture into the butter mixture and continue to cook, whisking frequently, until the sauce has thickened slightly, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the bay leaves, and stir in all but about 1 cup of the cheese. Toss the sauce with the macaroni, then transfer the mixture to the greased pan and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.
3. If you want a breadcrumb topping, put the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet. When it melts, add the breadcrumbs and toss to coat them with the butter. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the macaroni and cheese.
4. Bake until the cheese is bubbling and the topping is golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve hot or warm. (Store leftover macaroni and cheese in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a few days.)