January 14, 2011
Macaroni and cheese is one of the most common comfort foods. Some people swear by the version mom or grandma used to make, whereas others swear by the version that comes from a blue box, or perhaps the version served up as a side at that favorite rib shack, but in the US at least, if you ask people to list their go-to comfort foods, more people than not will list some take on mac and cheese.
I've had a lot of good versions of mac and cheese over the years, but so far I haven't really found one I'd consider the "best" version. That doesn't keep me from trying to find one, though.
Most of the best versions I've tried have included a mix of different cheeses, so I figured that was a good place to start. After considering several options, I went with sharp cheddar backed up with Colby for robust, cheesy flavor, plus mozzarella, Monterrey jack and American cheese for creamy texture and rich, more complex flavor. I figured that mix of cheeses and a bit of seasoning added to a base sauce of butter, flour and milk ought to do the trick.
I went back and forth on whether or not to add some ham or bacon to the mix. I've often liked versions of mac and cheese including either of those ingredients, but I've also disliked a few versions. Ultimately I decided to go with just a bit of ham, enough to add an accent to the dish without dominating it.
I ended up with a big pot of mac and cheese with rich cheese flavor and great texture. I went a bit too heavy on the onion the first time around, so the amount listed below is dialed back from there, and should be just right.
I'm going to continue my search for a favorite mac and cheese recipe, but this one is pretty good... maybe even good enough to be a personal favorite. Give it a try and see for yourself.
Five-Cheese Macaroni with Ham
yield = 8 servings
1 pound uncooked macaroni (or cavatappi or similar pasta)
1 teaspoon salt + 1/2 teaspoon
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon grated fresh onion
1/2 teaspoon garlic
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon dry mustard, dissolved in 1 teaspoon water
1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup chicken broth
8 slices (approx. 6 ounces) American cheese
8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
4 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded
2 ounces Colby cheese, shredded
2 ounces Monterrey jack cheese, shredded
1/2 pound ham steak, diced into 1/4" bits
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a medium-size (5 quarts or larger) Dutch oven with nonstick cooking spray. Add 5 quarts of water and 1 teaspoon of salt to a stock pot and bring to a boil. When the water comes to a boil, prepare the pasta per package directions.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. When the butter is steaming, add the grated onion. Cook 4 minutes, then stir in the garlic and cook 30 seconds. Stir in the flour and cook until browned (about 1 minute), then stir in the mustard-water mixture, black pepper, cayenne pepper and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Whisk in milk and chicken broth, bring to a simmer and cook 2 minutes.
Add the cheddar, Colby, Monterrey jack and mozzarella cheese to a bowl and mix.
One slice at a time, tear bits off the American cheese and whisk them into the milk mixture. When all the American cheese is incorporated, whisk in the cheddar cheese mixture, 1/2 cup at a time until it is all incorporated into the sauce.
When the pasta is done, drain it and place it in the Dutch oven. Add the chopped ham steak and the cheese sauce to the Dutch oven and stir with a rubber spatula to thoroughly mix.
Place the Dutch oven in the oven uncovered and cook 20 minutes. Increase the oven heat to broil and cook 2-3 minutes or until the pasta-cheese mixture is lightly browned on top. Remove from the oven and cool for a couple minutes before serving.