Pop Culture

Melty mac and cheese grows up, goes gourmet

Macaroni and cheese is a dish that, in its simplicity, becomes all about balance. In texture, that means pasta that still has some tooth and cheesiness that’s also satiny smooth. The flavor should have a foundation of richness and a good contrast between creaminess and tang. Creamy, rich, satiny, delicious. And just a little decadent.

One of the best dishes of macaroni and cheese I ever made was one of those fleeting culinary experiences. Remnants from an after-dinner cheese plate lingered in the fridge after a recent dinner party and all I could think was “macaroni and cheese.” Together, the four or five varieties conspired to make a marvel of pasta-meets-cheese harmony. It made me realize that as good as a plain old cheddar mac is, the results are more compelling when a variety of cheeses are used, adding distinctive character to the dish.

S’Mac opened in New York City’s East Village neighborhood early this summer, not the first of the one-dish-wonder restaurants but one that has really hit a chord with customers. Sarita Ekya and husband Caesar co-own the restaurant, and she is also its namesake — “S’Mac” is short for “Sarita’s macaroni and cheese.” Amateur mac and cheese aficionados before opening the restaurant, the couple went pro by banking on the simple precept that everyone loves macaroni and cheese. And boy, do they.

Everyone, says Sarita Ekya, considers himself or herself an expert on this ubiquitous dish, and they freely offer advice on its perfect elements. But after plenty of trial and errors, Sarita’s got her bases covered.

The house pasta is Barilla’s twisted elbow macaroni. “The little curl in the pasta holds sauce much nicer, which is what it’s all about,” she explains.

On the cheese side, Ekya uses American, cheddar, Muenster, Manchego, Parmesan, and mozzarella in various combinations for just the right balance of flavor and creaminess.

Nutty, creamy, irresistible
Seattle’s most pedigreed macaroni and cheese can be found in the historic Pike Place Market. Beecher’s Handmade Cheese brings in local milk almost daily to make cheese on the spot. Since opening three years ago, they’ve been selling a decadent mac and cheese, which has earned raves in both the New York Times and Washington Post.

“It’s important to undercook the pasta pretty dramatically,” hints Kurt Dammeier, Beecher’s founder and owner. He suggests undercooking “by about half so it’s still a little crunchy in the middle.”

The pasta will continue to soften during baking, absorbing cheese sauce along the way, so don’t be skimpy with the sauce-to-pasta ratio. The cheese of choice at Beecher’s is their cheddar-like Flagship, aged one year to a delicious nuttiness, balanced with mild, creamy Just Jack.

Béchamel sauce is the binder that makes the marriage of pasta and cheese work. The simple butter and flour-thickened sauce is a vehicle for the melting cheese, without which it would simply clump rather than swathing the pasta in luxurious cheesiness.

When making mac and cheese at home, Dammeier just chunks up the cheese with his fingers, not bothering with grating, and moves the pan on and off the gentle heat as needed, stirring until the cheese is fully melted.

One look at S’Mac’s menu and you get the idea that there are countless ways to play with macaroni and cheese. They’ve got everything from the Cheeseburger with ground beef, onions, mustard and ketchup, to the Brie, which features that silky cheese blended with figs, shiitakes and rosemary. You can even build your own, adding such options as bacon, roasted garlic, kalamata olives, andouille sausage and roasted tomatoes. They recently introduced specials to their menu, the first Masala Mac, with Indian influences coming from cumin, fresh cilantro, tomato and turmeric.

Dammeier says that one of the most phenomenal macaroni and cheeses he ever made at home had Dungeness crabmeat in the mix. Going the extra mile, he made a crab stock from the shells and used it in the béchamel sauce in place of milk. “It was pretty serious,” he admits. The recipe was so good, it will be included in a cookbook he’s working on (due out summer 2007).

No matter how many upgrade points you add to the basic recipe, no matter what type of pasta you use, no matter how many miles the imported fromage had to travel to get to your kitchen, it will still always be macaroni and cheese. And I don’t think we’d want it any other way.

Ultimate Macaroni and Cheese
Makes 6 servings

Choose a medium-sized pasta with grooves, twists and/or curves that will hold a maximum of the cheese sauce. Varieties such as macaroni, gemelli, radiatore, rotini, shells or fusilli are ideal. You can skip the onion/bay leaf/peppercorn infusion for the béchamel sauce to save time; it adds a subtle layer of savory flavor to the dish.

  • 2 ½ c (9 ounces) dry pasta
  • 2 ½ c whole milk
  • 1 slice onion
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 10 whole black peppercorns
  • 4 T unsalted butter
  • ¼ c all-purpose flour
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated (about 2 ½ cups)
  • 3 oz fontina cheese, grated (about 1 cup)
  • 3 oz Emmenthal, Gruyère or similar Swiss-type cheese, grated (about 1 cup)
  • ½ c fresh bread crumbs

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Generously butter a 2-quart baking dish.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Stir in the pasta and boil until it is about half-cooked, tender on the surface with a distinct bite still in the center, about 5 minutes. Drain well, rinse with cold water and set aside, tossing from time to time as it cools to avoid sticking.

3. Put the milk in a small saucepan with the onion slice, bay leaf and peppercorns. Bring just to a low boil over medium heat, then take the pan from the heat and let sit to infuse for 10 to 15 minutes. (If skipping the aromatics, simply warm the milk.)

4. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, whisking constantly, until it foams up and has a very slight toasty smell (it should not brown), 1 to 2 minutes. Strain the warm milk into the pan and whisk to blend. Continue to cook the sauce, whisking often, until it thickens, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and gradually whisk in the cheeses until fully melted. Season the sauce to taste with salt and pepper, then add the pasta and stir to fully coat all the pasta with the cheese sauce.

5. Pour the mixture into the prepared dish and sprinkle the bread crumbs evenly over. Set the dish on the oven rack and lay a piece of foil on the rack below to catch any drips. Bake until the macaroni and cheese is bubbling hot and the top is nicely browned, about 40 minutes. Let sit for about 15 minutes before serving.

Cynthia Nims is a food and travel writer based in Seattle. She is the co-author, most recently, of “Rover's Cookbook.”