The Great Mac and Cheese Debate

Posted on January 14, 2006

As we were perusing The New York Times last week, we ran across an investigative, in-depth article about how to make the best homemade macaroni and cheese. There's a war on and Sam Alito's confirmation hearings are going on, but hey -- why not spend those journalistic resources on something really important, right?

Anyway, we read the article which struck us as really odd. The author argues vehemently against using a white sauce as the base of macaroni and cheese and instead advocates using cheese and noodles -- and that's about it. That sounded like a great way to get a lot of lumpy cheese and some macaroni with a really tough, leathery top. But we let it pass.

But apparently, we weren't the only ones to notice the great Macaroni and Cheese Debate that the Times started. Sara Dickerman over at Slate also saw that recipe and was surprised to find that the recipe for Crusty Macaroni and Cheese remained one of the most-emailed stories at the Times for the past nine days. That's a lot of people reading about how to make really awful macaroni and cheese.
[S]omething 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.

*****

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.

*****

"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.
If that's not enough to wean you off the kind in the box, well then we can't help you.