You have successfully made it past Thanksgiving, but there are 20-something dinners between now and the glass of champagne on New Year’s Eve that marks the end of the holiday rush, as well as the year. Some might be quick grab-‘n-go affairs; others might be major family feasts like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas. Either way, it’s probably safe to say you are overbooked. You need a foolproof recipe that takes less than 30 minutes to create and is loved by even the pickiest eaters. In short, you need an intensely flavorful and fast macaroni and cheese dish that can be dressed up or dressed down, depending on the occasion.
I explored two paths to preparation: old school and new school. Both techniques began with the foundation of any good mac and cheese: the sauce.
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The old school approach to making cheese sauce starts with the classic 19th century French technique of cooking a roux of flour and butter, then slowly and laboriously whisking in milk and cheese. It is a tried-and-true method, but can leave the sauce tasting a bit pasty unless you thoroughly cook the flour and butter before adding the wet ingredients. Even when done to perfection, the base ingredients soften the flavor profile, masking the taste of pure cheese.
The new school approach made popular by the brilliant folks at Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine Cooking Lab involves using an all-natural ingredient known as sour salt (sodium citrate) to emulsify the cheese into a smooth sauce, but it too can be a tiresome task over a hot stove. On the other hand, a big bonus to this approach was that the sauce tasted like a liquid chunk of cheese. And for those with certain dietary concerns, it also meant that the sauce was entirely gluten free.
At this point, I gave a nod to the new school approach for the flavor test and moved on. I was still facing an uphill challenge to make this classic dish easier and less time consuming. Out of habit, I reached for my speedy sous-chef, the Vitamix blender. True to form, it turned three simple ingredients into one stellar, silky sauce in less than seven minutes — coincidentally, the same amount of time it took to boil the pasta. I had successfully reached base camp.
At this point, the pragmatist in me whispered, “Stop while you’re ahead,” and “Don’t mess with a good thing,” but I wasn’t quite done. Could I turn this mac and cheese into a dish that was equally at home at a potluck or a fancy dinner? Could I vary the seasonings, the toppings, even the very heart of the sauce? The simple answer to all the questions was yes.
I opened the refrigerator, pulled out my spice rack and tapped into the liquor cabinet (for ingredients, naturally). I experimented with a wide range of ground chili peppers from Marash and Aleppo to citrus-scented Urfa chili and fresh jalapenos. I added crunchy toppings that would turn into a glorious crust while the casserole baked and fresh herbs that were simply sprinkled on. I blended in different aromatics like brandy, white wine and my latest favorite flavoring for just about everything, aged tawny port.
After an afternoon of playing with my food, I discovered that the best mac and cheese is a very personal thing. Once you have the basic sauce in hand, almost anything goes. When all was said and done, my favorite combination was spiced with smoky Aleppo pepper, infused with Croft 10-year old tawny port and doused with another strikingly simple topping: bacon and toasted panko crumble.
The Ultimate Macaroni and Cheese
The primary sauce ingredients include a liquid, some sodium citrate and cheese. After that, you can craft a mac and cheese that suits your taste — mild or sharp, nutty or spicy. My holiday season favorite is to add some Croft aged tawny port for a taste of that classic winter combination: cheese and dried fruit.
3 strips bacon
1 cup panko bread crumbs
1 cup whole milk
5 teaspoons sodium citrate (12 grams)
8 ounces white cheddar cheese (or any semisoft cheese of your choice such as Gouda, Morbier, Swiss or Gruyère), broken up into medium-sized chunks
½ cup aged tawny port (or another liquid of your choice, including water, milk or white wine)
1 teaspoon dark brown mustard
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
12 ounces macaroni (or any sauce-gripping pasta of your choice)
For bacon-panko topping:
1. In a medium skillet, fry the bacon to a crisp; reserve 2 tablespoons of bacon fat in the skillet and add the panko, tossing until it is brown and toasted. Crumble bacon and toasted bread crumbs together.
This versatile, incredibly crunchy crumble can be made days in advance and does not require refrigeration.
For the cheese sauce:
1. Place the milk and sodium citrate in a high-speed blender (must be capable of generating frictional heat above 160 F).
2. Turn the blender on to its highest setting and process for 4 minutes.
3. While the blender is processing, chop or break up the cheese into medium-sized chunks.
4. After 4 minutes, turn the blender off to avoid splashing, and add the cheese. Turn the blender back on at high speed for an additional 2 minutes.
5. Reduce the blender to the lowest speed and pour in ½ cup of port (or white wine, milk or water) and any other flavoring ingredients of your choice (mustard, chili pepper, salt). Depending on thickness, you may need to add a bit more liquid to get to the consistency of your choice.
At this point, the cheese sauce can be refrigerated for up to one week and reheated to return it to its liquid state before using with pasta.
For the pasta:
1. While the cheese sauce is being processed, cook pasta al dente according to the package directions. Drain and dress with sauce and topping.
This recipe was created using the Vitamix Professional Series 750, but can be prepared using the “old school” stovetop approach with similar, albeit more time-consuming results by replacing the sodium citrate with a roux made by heating butter over medium heat and adding flour until golden browned. In a separate pan, heat milk until just below boil. Slowly whisk the hot milk into the roux, followed by grated cheese and seasonings until completed melted. Remove from heat and whisk in the port.
Sodium citrate, also known as sour salt, can be found in some specialty food stores and online at Modernist Pantry.
Top photo: Macaroni and cheese with bacon-panko topping. Credit: Caroline J. Beck