Macaroni and cheese has always been on my “must-explore” list. It’s just eaten too often in this country for us to ignore it. Kids in particular say yes to macaroni and cheese when they turn up their noses at everything else. Unfortunately, it’s the boxed version, complete with orange cheese powder, that’s made most often.
There are two distinct styles of macaroni and cheese: bechamel-based, in which macaroni is blanketed with a cheesy white sauce, usually topped with crumbs, and baked. The other variety, the kind my mother always made, is custard-based. In this style, a mixture of egg and milk is poured over layers of grated cheese and noodles. As the dish bakes, the eggs, milk and cheese set into a custard. It can also be topped with bread crumbs, although my mom always sprinkled crushed saltine crackers over hers.
We preferred the cheesier-flavoured custard version and decided to experiment. To our surprise, highly processed cheeses such as American performed quite well in this dish. Much like evaporated milk, the more processing, the more stable the cheese and the more creamy the dish. For flavour, use cheddar; for texture, buy American. You can skip the bread crumbs and sprinkle the dish with crumbled common crackers or saltines, if desired.
STOVETOP MACARONI AND CHEESE
Start to finish: 45 minutes
Bread Crumbs:3 slices hearty white sandwich bread, torn into quarters
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Macaroni and Cheese:2 large eggs
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
1 teaspoon dry mustard, dissolved in 1 teaspoon water
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon hot sauce
8 ounces elbow macaroni (2 cups)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 ounces sharp cheddar, American, or Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (3 cups)
For the bread crumbs: Pulse bread in food processor to coarse crumbs, about 10 pulses. Melt butter in 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add bread crumbs and cook, stirring often, until beginning to brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Season with salt to taste; set aside.
For the macaroni and cheese: Mix eggs, 1 cup evaporated milk, mustard mixture, 1/2 teaspoon salt, pepper, and hot sauce in bowl.
Meanwhile, bring 2 quarts water to boil in Dutch oven. Add pasta and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and cook, stirring often, until al dente. Drain pasta and return to pot over low heat. Add butter and toss to melt.
Add egg mixture and three-quarters of cheese to pasta and toss until thoroughly combined and cheese starts to melt. Gradually add remaining evaporated milk and remaining cheese, stirring constantly, until mixture is hot and creamy, about 5 minutes. Serve immediately, sprinkling individual portions with toasted bread crumbs.
Variation:”Baked” Macaroni and Cheese: Add 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese to toasted bread crumbs. Adjust oven rack 6 inches from broiler element and heat broiler. Transfer macaroni and cheese mixture to a 13-by-9-inch broiler-safe baking dish and sprinkle with bread-crumb mixture. Broil until topping turns deep golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Let casserole cool for 5 minutes before serving.