This is another no recipe thing – but in the tradition of Michael Ruhlman – it is a ratio –
though I am not good at math. There it is. My mom made the best mac n cheese ever. We never had anything out of a Kraft box (ugh — so gross). I do think I picked this up my osmosis (cannot believed I spelled that correctly on the first go – woo hoo!). I really don’t remember paying that much attention to how my mom made it, but I knew how to do this by instinct – again, in my head it was osmosis.
So this is a total ratio thing, but to me the easiest way to tell someone how to make it is to show them how to make it. It can be a little vague otherwise. This was the subject of one of the early Wednesday Cooking School nights for the Boy. It is one of his favorite things, not surprising, since it also one of my favorite things. It is also vegetarian, which means I had it in the freezer while waiting for him to be born and I remember distinctly that I had some the night I came home from the hospital with him.
I have this lovely ceramic dish from Portugal (I did not go there to get it, but did buy it from a store in Durham, NC) and it is a pretty dish and I bought two because of that. But here is where the ratios come into play. No matter what dish you have, to make mac n cheese for whatever sized dish you have measure out dry pasta* in the dish to about the half way full. Once you cook the pasta, then it will fill the dish — see, a ratio – who knew from math? But I knew that before Ruhlman (still love you guy).
Now here is the next ratio – fat to flour – also knew this before Ruhlman. I always prefer to have more cheese sauce than I need, so for my pan (need to measure and figure out how big that dang this is). I start with 4 Tbs of unsalted butter, which I melt over low heat and then add basically the same amount of all-purpose flour and a bit of salt and pepper. Then cook the flour for a minute or two, stirring the whole time. It would be a good thing if you had taken your whole milk out prior to starting this and I probably should have said that before now. But as long as you add the milk a little at a time, it will be okay. Some people warm the milk in a sauce pan, but my mom never did, so I don’t either.
Here’s the thing – when you first start adding the milk it will look like a clumpy mess with the butter mixture. You really are making a light roux and then you are going on to make a bechamel sauce sort of. Anyway. Use that whisk to eliminate lumps, but pretty soon you need to switch to a good spatula (Get it Right spatulas – see this link, and this one, then there is this one, and .. well you get it.) because you don’t want the milk to scorch on the bottom of the sauce pan – that would be a disaster (i.e. start over – no other choice, nope none).
So again, this is where it is where it is so much easier to show than explain, but the ratio, is about the same amount of cups of milk as butter – in this case 3 1/2 to four, but add a bit at a time. Let simmer over low heat and let thicken over time.
Then the cheese comes into play. In my case, always extra sharp cheddar, white or yellow, your choice, but once the bechamel thickens it is time to take it off the heat and add the grated cheese, setting aside a bit to put on the top. Add the cooked pasta (you did that already, right? Dumped the pasta you measured in the pan into a nicely salted pot of boiling water and cooked until al dente) to the sauce and tip into the baking dish, top with a little extra shredded cheese and cover with foil. But in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake for 5 – 10 minutes until cheese is bubbly.
You need to let it cool a bit before diving in, but that is a necessary thing.
So to you from me – My Mom’s not-recipe for the best homemade mac n cheese.
*I typically use penne or rotini, but elbow is good too. Some pasta that will hold the cheesy goodness of the sauce.