Macaroni and cheese used to be a tangle of steaming spaghetti with butter and cheese melting into it and a generous grinding of black pepper on top. All gooey and stringy, that's how my mom would make it when I was a kid. She cooked the pasta beyond al dente until it was tender, and she must've used cheddar or mozzarella or possibly Monterey jack but I can't remember for sure. She was never one for sauces.
Then one day, I had dinner at a friend's house and discovered the joy of macaroni bathed in a cheese sauce. It came in the form of Velveeta Shells and Cheese. I know it seems odd to give Kraft credit for one of my formative food experiences, but I still remember it as the moment that I, an impressionable teenager, tasted a creamy cheese sauce for the very first time.
(For the record, I never ate the stuff in the blue box. For some reason, my little brother was crazy for that crap, but not me.)
So now when I close my eyes and imagine the perfect comfort food macaroni and cheese, the dish the kid in me idealizes, I think of a velvety cheese sauce flavored boldly with real cheddar cheese. And I imagine an effortless recipe that is a cinch to quickly throw together on a whim and can be made with ingredients that are always on hand.
It's elusive, this macaroni and cheese I dream of.
For or a long time I thought it didn't exist at all. Most versions that I have had…that I have myself made don't live up. Macaroni and cheese made with roux-based white sauce doesn't quite do it for me because it tastes more like the white sauce than the cheese, no matter how expert the execution and fine the ingredients. It doesn't have the right creaminess either. Besides all that, why should a dish so humble require at least 45 minutes, the use of both the stovetop and the oven, and the dirtying of two pots, a colander, and a baking dish? Boxed macaroni and cheese and deli versions don't even come close, since they employ processed cheese and various neon orange powders in lieu of real cheese.
Researching stovetop recipes proved fruitless, as most called for evaporated milk, which seemed gross, or thickening the sauce with egg, which seemed out of place, or both.
I got to thinking…Why drain the cooked pasta, losing all its precious starch just to use a different starch to thicken the sauce? Why not take advantage of the pasta's own starch for thickening the sauce? And why not cook macaroni and cheese more like it was risotto, adding only as much liquid as the pasta will absorb? I literally ran into the kitchen and started cooking. It was nothing less than a eureka moment!
Thus, Lucy's Ultimate Mac & Cheese was born. I must say, even if it borders on bragging, that I'm really proud of this recipe. The texture and flavor are exactly what I'd been looking for ever since I was a kid. It requires little more time or effort than the packaged stuff, and the only cleanup is one pot and one spoon. It's a stovetop recipe, so you can make it even in the summertime when it's too hot to turn on the oven. Oh, and leftovers, should there be any, reheat nicely in the microwave. I think you'll agree it really is the ultimate.
Lucy's Ultimate Mac & Cheese
1 pound elbow macaroni
1 quart milk
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
¼ teaspoon powdered mustard
1/8 teaspoon granulated garlic
Generous pinch cayenne pepper
12 ounces, or more, shredded sharp cheddar
½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 to 2 teaspoons Tabasco sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
Combine the macaroni, milk, butter, mustard, granulated garlic, cayenne, and 3 cups of water in a medium, heavy pot. Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring constantly and adding more water as necessary any time the macaroni looks dry, for 7 to 8 minutes, or until the macaroni is just tender. Remove from the heat and stir in the cheddar, Worcestershire, and Tabasco. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.
Serves 4 to 6. The trick to this recipe's seductive creaminess is constant stirring from the time the pot is put on the heat and making sure there's enough water in the pot. There will be plenty of liquid in the beginning. When the mixture comes to a boil, the starch from the pasta will make it thicken, creating a creamy sauce. The sauce will reduce and continue to thicken as it simmers and as the pasta absorbs water. Adjust the heat so that it cooks at a lively bubble. Too slow, and the pasta will take forever to cook. Boil it too fast, and it'll be hard to monitor the level of the liquid. Toward the end of the cooking time, there should still be enough sauce in the pot to just cover the macaroni—if not, or if you like it creamier still, add more water a little at a time, keeping in mind that the cheese will thicken the sauce considerably. It's best to incorporate the cheese off the heat. Do not boil the mixture once the cheddar has been added, or it will have a grainy texture. And speaking of cheddar, why stop at 12 ounces when you can add a whole pound? Or mix it up—consider substituting a portion of the cheddar with provolone, mozzarella, and/or Parmegiano for a different flavor and some stringy action. Top with toasted buttered breadcrumbs or some such crunchy thing if you must, but I prefer to appreciate the creaminess unspoiled.