Homemade macaroni and cheese is comfort food taken up to the next level and made all warm, gooey, and creamy in a few mere minutes.
It’s not the familiar blue box you grew up with but it will invoke the memories and it will taste better.
Hitting the Books
Shout out to my history teachers. Most people give Thomas Jefferson — main author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the U.S. — credit for bringing macaroni and cheese to this country after a trip to Italy. It is even included in the original Monticello Cook Book and the recipe is super simple.
In my copy of The Escoffier Cookbook, considered one of the definitive French cookbooks from days of old, there is a recipe for Italienne Macaroni, which is closer to what we normally think of as a stovetop mac and cheese, and then Macaroni au Gratin as a baked variation. (Raspings being bread crumbs.)
The mention of Béchamel is important. One of the mother sauces, it’s flour and butter cooked as a roux and then built with milk. Remember making the blue box? Milk, butter, and a packet of cheese and flour? Et voilà! There you go!
Of course, I’ve had a Béchamel sauce fail too and turn all grainy and yuck. Sadly, it’s not one-hundred percent foolproof though the more times you make it the closer you’ll get.
(Too much detail: a Mornay sauce is a Béchamel with cheese. I suppose if you were to make the sauce separately and add the cheese to it, then add the macaroni, you’d have a Mornay. If you make them all separately and combine, then it’s a Béchamel. Moving on.)
So I then went looking through my more traditional cookbooks to see how our grandparents and perhaps their parents used to make this ultimate comfort food.
My 1896 Fannie Farmer is cooked macaroni, cheese, and a white sauce which turns out to be butter, flour, milk, and salt. Maybe touch of pepper. Sound familiar?
In the 1943 Joy of Cooking, which I still say is the best edition, it’s a baked affair with eggs, paprika, cayenne, bread crumbs, and can be served with tomato sauce. Nope, that’s not right. Call me a purist.
James Beard on Pasta, follows the same formula as the baked others but includes tabasco and heavy cream / crème fraîche.
This is a great American classic, one of our best dishes. It has to be gooey, made with a really rich béchamel and with a Cheddar that sings with flavor. I love it when the cheese on top gets burnt and chewy, and I love to scrape up the dried bits that stick to the pan.
If I go back to Kettner’s Book of the Table, 1877 London, “Macaroni and cheese is the most digestible form in which bread and cheese can be presented — the only form in which many weak vessels can tolerate it.” He writes bread because “macaroni is a form of wheat flour — a bread, in fact…..” Kettner’s variation is baked from macaroni, milk, half Gruyère, half Parmesan, a bit of butter, and bread-raspings.
You may wonder why I include [macaroni and cheese]. I suppose it is nostalgia that makes me feel the need to preserve this wholly old-fashioned nursery staple; I worry sometimes that food like this will disappear.
If I’ve only got some corner-store horror of fake tasteless Cheddar, I add a pinch of mustard powder or cayenne.
My old and worn Better Homes & Gardens had all sorts of strange baked concoctions using such things as American cheese, minced onion, paprika, mushroom soup, pimiento, eggs, and the kitchen sink. Nothing to see here.
Betty Crocker, 1981, uses “8 ounces process sharp American or Swiss cheese, process American cheese loaf or process cheese spread loaf” which is the longest way of not saying or Velveeta I’ve seen in print. Betty’s variations include adding one or more of peas, green beans, ham, sliced hot dogs, pimiento-stuffed olives, green and/or red pepper, tomato, and tuna. I’ve been on the plate-side of sliced hot dogs when I was young. I can’t talk about it yet.
No matter how closely you follow my instructions, your macaroni and cheese will never taste exactly like mine, but we’ll hope. I never made the dish exactly the same way twice, but each time it gets more divine. I’ve had people come back to me and say, “Pearl, I tried it, but it didn’t taste like it did over at your house.” I could have told them that before they went away. You see, no two cooks get exactly the same taste in a dish. I’m not saying that one is better or worse than the other. I’m just saying that each cook puts a certain amount of himself in there.
Thinking Out of the Box
Off to the grocery I went. I grew up on the all-too-familiar Kraft blue box. It’s changed over the years. For the longest time it included yellow dye #5 and/or yellow dye #6, petroleum-derived food dyes neither of which I can eat. They have recently removed those dyes and replaced them with paprika, turmeric, and annatto to achieve that construction-cone-orange we grew up with. It does have sodium triphosphate, an inorganic compound, i.e. not food, and the cheese sauce mix doesn’t actually include cheese.
All that said, this is the one I have old memories of and it will always hold a special place in my heart. This and Malt-o-meal hot cereal were the first two foods I was allowed to make by myself on the stove. And we thought it significantly better than the school’s lunchroom offering.
I also have fond memories of when my wife and I were first married, I’d cook up a box of this and mix in half-a-pound of ground beef for dinner and we considered it special. Of course, it was a lot cheaper then (we were just starting out and always broke, but nonetheless).
I also grabbed a box of Annie’s Classic Mild Cheddar (the cheapest one of her many varieties on the shelf). It is made with organic pasta, so that’s a plus. And the ingredients include cheese. Silicon dioxide for anticaking. Sand. I talked about this early last year in the shredded cheese blues post.
And last, I got my hands on a jar of King Arthur Vermont Cheese Powder. This is lovely stuff sprinkled on all sorts of things like roast vegetables and even in dip. And right there on the side is a macaroni and cheese recipe.
I lined up four Supper Club folk as taste-testers for the Kraft, Annie’s, King Arthur, and finally the recipe I’ll get to in a minute. Now, please, before you write me nasty letters, these are their opinions and in no way reflect your opinion and they are provided here just for research purposes. You do you.
“Very bland. Barely tastes like cheese.”
“Tastes clean but it’s a little bland.”
Everyone pointed to this one and said, “That’s Kraft, because it’s orange.” So much for completely blind tests.
“There’s more flavor here, it’s cheesier.”
“More like what I’d expect out of a box.”
“It’s pretty good.”
“It’s what I’d expect if I ordered it somewhere.”
“Tastes more like pasta with cheese sauce than macaroni and cheese.”
“Not bad. Not quite cheesey enough.”
I wasn’t happy yet.
I started this adventure because a Supper Club friend asked for my recipe. Did I have one? No, I had dozens of them. But the more I thought about it the more I then became determined to find one stovetop recipe that always works, is reasonably cheap to make, only takes a few minutes so I can make it spur of the moment, doesn’t contain unknown chemicals and ingredients, and finally one that tastes really good!
Start with Good Ingredients
In the interests of transparency, I buy DaVinci elbow macaroni by the dozen maybe twice a year to save some money. It’s one of my pantry staples. I can’t speak to the pasta quality used in the boxes above but I think this tastes better.
Now, I first made the recipe below with a high-quality cheddar cheese and it was decadent. Like the kind you’d get in a restaurant where no one is wearing a t-shirt. And the tasters thought it was very good too.
But it still didn’t invoke the childhood memories I was hoping for. So then I used some grocery-store-branded cheddar whose ingredients label was as clean and simple as the expensive stuff, bonus for being more orange with only annatto added for color. And it was the perfect peasant comfort kitchen Suppertime Blues pan of goodness dish. Score! Not to mention putting this within pennies per serving of the organic boxed options!
So without further ado.
Pantry Simple Stovetop Magic
This couldn’t be easier (which I love). Equal parts by weight of uncooked macaroni, evaporated milk, and a block of cheese.
The recipe calls for 6 ounces of each, I doubled it and used 12 ounces. I have a kitchen scale that makes it easy. Just be aware, your measuring cup says 8 ounces for a cup — that’s a liquid measure, not a weight measure, and they are very different. Eight ounces of macaroni is about a cup-and-a-half, for example.
In a good-sized saucepan, put the macaroni, a pinch of salt, and enough cold water to cover the pasta. Put this over medium-high heat and bring to a boil stirring frequently.
The macaroni will absorb all of the water — no need to drain this and in fact you don’t want to! Some of the creaminess comes from the starches from the macaroni. And no colander to wash — bonus!
Then, once the water’s pretty much gone, add the evaporated milk. Bring this to a boil.
Add the grated cheese and stir until well-blended.
Taste it. Some cheeses have more or less salt than others and you may want to add a pinch more.
Let cool for a minute or two. Don’t worry if it’s just a little thin, it will continue to firm up a bit as it cools.
Can I eat the rest of this?
— Supper Club taste-testers
Homemade Macaroni and Cheese
Homemade macaroni and cheese is comfort food taken up to the next level and made all warm, gooey, and creamy in a few mere minutes. Visit suppertimeblues.com to learn more.
- 6 ounces elbow macaroni
- 6 ounces evaporated milk
- 6 ounces grated cheese
In a large saucepan, cover the macaroni with water and a dash of salt.
Over medium-high heat, bring to a boil, stirring frequently, until the pasta is almost but not quite cooked. About 6 minutes.
Once the water has been absorbed, add the evaporated milk, and return to a boil.
Stir in the grated cheese and keep stirring until fully melted in and creamy.
Remove from heat, wait a couple minutes to cool and finish cooking.
Taste it, adjust for salt to taste, and serve.
To reheat, place in a microwave-safe bowl, stir in a tablespoon of milk, and cook at 50% power until desired temp.