Legendary mac and cheese

I hosted a friend recently for an overnight stay. Her long anticipated trip abroad had been cancelled and I invited her to spend a night in Albany, in place of her former itinerary of Amsterdam, Dublin and Edinburg. There were aspects I could add to our planned shared time which might provide experiences reminiscent of time spent in a couple of those cities. 

You know, Dutch fun (Cheese! What were you thinking??) and Irish butter, aka the perfect inspiration for one of the finest comfort foods ever: baked macaroni and cheese.

Because I had some vegetables in the crisper which had mostly lost their crisp, I improvised the “recipe” and ended up with delicious results along with a dish that cleared out the vegetable bin. And the cheese drawer.

To me, mac and cheese is supposed to be the product of whatever cheese ends one might have kicking around. On this occasion, I had a hunk of some good UK cheddar and another piece of sharp NYS cheddar. My friend got busy grating those two, which probably combined to be about a pound of cheese, while I put the water on for the pasta to cook.

At the same time, I set up my double boiler dropping 4 oz of unsalted Kerrygold butter in the stainless steel bowl resting above the heating up water.  When the butter was completely melted, I slowly (over at least 5 minutes) sprinkled the butter with (eventually) a 1/2 cup of flour, whisking the roux-to-be fairly consistently.

I began adding 2% milk to the butter/flour combo, slowly, stirring constantly. Eventually, I probably used about 2 cups of milk. The trick is to take your time and achieve a consistency that is thick enough to coat a wooden spoon, yet liquid enough to be able to incorporate all that cheese you’re going to add. 

It’s mac and cheese, not soufflé. You can do this.

I poured my sauce of butter, flour and milk over the shredded cheese, which was in a larger bowl, and swapped it with the smaller bowl so it had the benefit of resting on the simmering water to melt the cheese. I seasoned with salt and smoked paprika.

The pasta was cooked to 60 seconds pre-al dente and drained, reserving about a 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Just in case. You just never know and it’s the liquid gold of cooking. Like breast milk. Sort of.

(While I didn’t use the reserved pasta water when I served dinner, I did drizzle the entire 1/2 cup onto the pasta after it had cooled enough to go in the fridge. I imagine I’ll probably reheat with a little butter and milk to keep things from becoming dry when i serve it for Monday’s Meatless dinner.)

I combined the pasta and sauce, and put them aside for a few moments to focus on the vegetables – maybe a cup of sliced baby portobellos and a generous handful of arugula, I was adding. I melted another couple of tablespoons of good, unsalted butter in the Le Creuset in which I intended to bake my casserole and sautéed the vegetables for maybe 2 minutes before stirring them into the bowl of pasta and sauce.

The last step was inspired, as far as I’m concerned. Using the same Le Creuset, I melted a little more butter (why not?) to which I added a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. After the two fats were combined, I threw in about a 1/2 cup of sliced scallions and 3/4 of a cup of plain panko, stirring over fairly low heat until the crumbs took on the lightest shade of gold.

Crumbs and scallions came out of pot and the pasta mixture went in. I finished the dish with a generous scattering *video on my insta,* of the panko mixture before popping it uncovered into the oven at 350° for 20 minutes.

This was the best mac and cheese I’ve ever made and I’ll be eyeing the detritus of my vegetable and cheese drawers with renewed enthusiasm in the future. Please share any mac and cheese tips you might have – or even a sample.  

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