I’m an aspiring mac 'n cheese critic – as in, I eat a lot of it and post too many photos of the comfort food on the TODAY Tumblr. Earlier this fall, I made the noble effort to try every single well-reviewed mac 'n cheese in New York City, and throughout my calorie-packed adventure, there was one clear winner: Beecher’s Handmade Cheese. The cult favorite artisan cheese-maker and restaurant boasts the “World's Best Mac & Cheese” (that’s the actual name of the dish; subtle, right?), which is a perfectly creamy and chewy masterpiece. Though I have yet to taste all the world’s cheesy delicacies (saving that for my honeymoon), I can say it’s likely not an exaggeration.
To celebrate National Cheese Lovers Day, I caught up with Kurt Beecher Dammeier, the founder and owner of Beecher's Handmade Cheese, who was kind enough to share tips on preparing the ultimate mac ‘n cheese and give away his secret recipe.
Choosing the pasta style
“Pasta style is a pretty individual choice. Some people really are Kraft traditionalists and demand elbow macaroni. We like penne or it's slightly larger brother pennoni. If I am making a seafood mac, I may go with a shell.”
Cooking the pasta
“The key is to undercook the pasta prior to adding it to the cheese sauce, so it still has a faint crunch if you bite it. The rest of the cooking happens in the sauce.”
“The basics are a smooth semi-soft cheese combined with a sharper, more flavorful semi-hard cheese. We use Beecher's 'Just Jack' and our 'Flagship.' Lots of fancy restaurants actually use Velveeta which isn't really even a cheese but is good for melting. I wouldn't use the rinds of anything that has any bitterness. Washed rind cheese can really add complexity. One of my favorites is Reblochon.”
Making the sauce
“Most are just a basic mornay sauce, where you make a roux of butter and flour, add milk and then cheese. Too much heat is the enemy of a cheese sauce and can make it break.”
Buttering the dish
“I actually like to spray it in the fiction that I am saving calories.”
Topping the dish
“We just top with more cheese! (No cowbell). Many people like breadcrumbs. I also like a little paprika or chili powder sprinkled on top for color.”
Cooking the mac ‘n cheese
"I like to get some browning on top. May even give it a shot under the broiler to finish."
"Serve with a flank steak and arugula salad."
Ready to get your hands cheesy? Behold, the secret to Beecher's success:
Beecher's World's Best Mac & Cheese
Serves 8 as a side dish
- 15 ounces penne pasta
- Beecher’s Flagship Sauce (recipe follows)
- 2 ounces (1/2 cup) Beecher’s Flagship cheese (or cheddar cheese), grated
- 2 ounces (1/2 cup) Beecher’s Just Jack cheese (or gruyere cheese), grated
- ½ teaspoon chipotle chili powder
Directions: Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
Cook the penne 2 minutes less than package directions. (It will finish cooking in the oven.) Rinse the pasta in cold water and set aside.
Combine the cooked pasta and Flagship sauce in a medium bowl and mix carefully but thoroughly. Scrape the pasta into an 9x13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle the top with the cheese and then the chili powder.
Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Let the mac and cheese sit for 5 minutes before serving.
Beecher's Flagship cheese sauce
Makes about 4 cups
- ¼ cup unsalted butter (½ stick)
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 3 cups milk
- 14 ounces Beecher’s Flagship cheese (or cheddar cheese), grated (about 3 1/2 cups)
- 2 ounces Beecher’s Just Jack cheese (or gruyere cheese), grated (1/2 cup)
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ to ½ teaspoon chipotle chili powder
- 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
Directions: Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan over medium heat and whisk in the flour. Continue whisking and cook for 2 minutes.
Slowly add the milk, whisking constantly. Cook until the sauce thickens, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat.
Add the cheese, salt, chili powder and garlic powder. Stir until the cheese is melted and all ingredients are incorporated, about 3 minutes. Use immediately or refrigerate for up to 3 days.
Too lazy to make your own? (I hear ya.) No worries: you can order your own frozen “World’s Best Mac & Cheese” at Beecher’s online. And tell us, where is your favorite place to get mac 'n cheese?
Rina Raphael is a TODAY.com editor who admittedly has a gouda addiction.