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The ultimate mac’n’cheese. April 25, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. This week, our fabled Friday Night Supper Club is gaining a few more members as a friend’s relatives drop in from out of town. (See our earlier post, “The Friday Night Supper Club,” to find out all about this excellent weekly gathering.) We were conferring about what to make as the main dish when a plaintive cry arose: “Make your macaroni and cheese!!!”

Now, mac’n’cheese hadn’t been uppermost in my mind when I was contemplating today’s menu, but hey. Who doesn’t love mac’n’cheese? Deliciously satisfying in winter, yummy with a crisp salad or cole slaw and iced tea in warmer weather, it’s the ultimate comfort food. And this is without doubt the ultimate mac’n’cheese recipe. So, since I’m going to make it anyway, I thought I’d share the recipe with you.

Credit where credit is due, though: This is not a Silence Dogood original. Instead, it’s the brainchild of our good friend Delilah. So I don’t even have to strive for false modesty when I tell you that it is without question the best mac’n’cheese any of us have ever eaten. And better still, it’s made in a Crock-Pot (that’s a slow cooker, for you benighted souls who use a different brand from the one and only original), so it takes no more time and effort to make than mac’n’cheese out of a box. (Fans of mac-in-the-box, you know who you are.) Cook the pasta, put it in the Crock-Pot, stir in the other ingredients, turn it on, get along with your day. Talk about fix it and forget it convenience! But trust me, no one’s going to forget it once they’ve tasted it.

Before we get to the recipe, though, let’s take a moment to discuss what distinguishes great from gross when it comes to macaroni and cheese. In the gross category: Mac’n’cheese that’s pretty much all mac and no cheese. Mac’n’cheese that’s soupy. (Lonely elbow-fish swimming in a sea of sauce just does not work for us. Eeeewwww!) Mac’n’cheese that’s a lurid orange, a color dreamed up in the mind of some mad scientist for something called “processed cheese product.” Keep your products to yourself, please. Mac’n’cheese that’s tasteless (in this case, we’re referring to flavor, not to the Day-Glo orange color just described). Mac’n’cheese that’s gummy. Mac’n’cheese that’s bitter (a failing of many an otherwise lovely mac’n’cheese made by well-intentioned folks using globs of orange Cheddar). Mac’n’cheese with under- (ouch!) or overcooked pasta (eeewww, this is macaroni, not pudding, people). And finally, mac’n’cheese with a crust so hard it can chip your teeth and knock out your fillings, because, face it, you know that’s the best part and you’re going to try to eat it anyway.

Moving on to what makes a good mac’n’cheese great: Lots of yummy, crunchy (as opposed to hard) crust to contrast with the creamy interior. Plenty of luscious flavor of the cheesy, buttery, creamy variety. Elbows cooked just right, so they’re fully done but still hold their shape rather than disintegrating. And finally, a sauce that’s the right texture. This is key, in my opinion, and in fact is key to all great pasta sauces: It has to cling to the pasta rather than floating, concentrating the flavor thickly around each elbow, but there has to be enough sauce so it isn’t simply absorbed by the pasta, leaving a dry mac’n’cheese that pleases nobody. The closest I can come to describing the perfect mac’n’cheese sauce texture is to say that if you’ve ever eaten an exquisitely prepared corn pudding (the ones served at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky come to mind), you know the texture I mean.

If your mouth’s not watering by now, you must’ve forgotten to put your teeth in this morning. So let’s get back to the recipe. But first, I have to play Moses (or at least Chef Boyardee) for a minute and give you the Four Mac’n’Cheese Commandments: 1. Thou shalt not cook this dish on high or the cheese will burn. 2. Thou shalt not use sweetened condensed milk instead of evaporated milk. 3. Thou shalt not use fresh milk, because it curdles in the Crock-Pot. 4. Thou shalt not cook this dish for more than 4 hours or the pasta will disintegrate. Okay, let’s do it! (Confession: This isn’t Delilah’s exact recipe, it’s the Hawk’s Haven version, which we of course think is even better. But we’re eternally grateful to her for passing along the original, so we’ve named our version after her.)

            Delilah’s Crock-Pot Macaroni and Cheese

1-pound package of elbow macaroni, cooked al dente (I have to admit that I find that regular macaroni holds its texture better in this recipe than any of the “healthier” versions, and I keep trying different ones in the hope of proving myself wrong.—Silence)    

2 12-ounce cans evaporated milk

1/3 cup butter, melted

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

4 cups (2 packages) shredded sharp white Cheddar (use extra-sharp if you want more flavor)

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 to 1/2 cup grated Parmesan

Paprika

Set aside 1 cup of the Cheddar, the Parmesan, and the paprika. Stir all other ingredients together in the Crock-Pot. Top with reserved Cheddar, Parmesan, and a hearty sprinkling of paprika to give the top a lovely warm color. Cook on low 3 to 4 hours. (I like to cook it for the full 4 hours for a crunchier crust.—Silence)

That’s all there is to it, and boy, is it delicious! Of course, you’re free to try your own variations once you’ve enjoyed the basic recipe. Our heat-loving friend Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame thinks adding sliced jalapenos would be nice. I myself contemplate replacing some or all of the Cheddar with grated Swiss or Gruyere for a different taste, but haven’t tried either yet. (Why mess with perfection?) I could see adding sauteed mushrooms, sweet onions, and/or red or gold peppers, too. If you try any variations, please let me know how they turn out! And if you have a favorite mac’n’cheese of your own, please share it with us. Maybe some day we’ll do a Great Mac’n’Cheese Cookoff!

                         ‘Til next time,

                                        Silence

             

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Comments»

1. CeeCee - April 25, 2008

You are sooooo naughty posting such decadence. I must say that drooling on my keyboard is unhealthy for it. ;)
Gruyere (sigh, drool, drool, sigh). Poor Richard–jalepenos on the side, children will be eating this yummy stuff. But yes, amen to jalepenos!
Now I know what I’ll be bringing to the next church potluck. I love the Crock Pot for such affairs.

Ha!!! Well, why should I be the only one gaining 10,000 pounds?!!

2. Lin - April 25, 2008

Sounds good! I sometimes make a similar version and add sauteed onions and Italian sausage.

By the way, I have found a healthier pasta that my Dh and I really like. It’s called “Barilla PLUS”. It a multigrain pasta that contains protein and ALA Omega-3. In my local market, it’s on the pasta aisle with the whole wheat pastas.

Thanks for the recipe, I will definitely try it. Have a good “Friday Night Supper Club”!

Thanks, Lin! We’ve tried Barilla PLUS and enjoyed it, too, though my favorite “healthy” pasta remains artichoke pasta (darnit, I’m blanking on the brand since we buy ours in bulk, but it is usually in the health-food section of most groceries; oh, wait, it’s DeBoles). I just saw another brand at the grocery today that was enhanced with omega-3s and extra protein, and thought that would definitely have to go on my must-try list, too. I don’t know why the healthier versions don’t hold up as well in the Crock-Pot. It might be worth *really* undercooking them and seeing what happened. Let me know!

3. Thomas Clump - April 25, 2008

This gentle dish steps up in grade when you ignite it with Thai Dragons or Yellow Devil’s Tongue Habeneros. Stand back and bow to Crom! As Conan the Barbarian might sneer, who wants to live forever?

Yikes, Thomas, a few habaneros or Thai Dragons and you’d be well on your way to meeting Crom in person! But hey, some like to live on the edge and/or flirt with the flames, right?

4. Thomas Clump - April 25, 2008

Takes it to a new level — from Mac’n’cheese to Pac’n’heat!

Ha! Too right.

5. Meg - April 26, 2008

Oh, I am such a sucker for Macaroni and Cheese.

Now is this for a regular sized crockpot? We have one of those little jobbers, so I guess we’d cut the quantities in half. This recipe sounds fantastic. Yum, yum, yum.

Honestly, I think a major motivator for me getting into the whole farming/sustainability thing was the prospect of someday having land, getting a cow and a goat, and making CHEESE.

I’m right there with you, Meg, re: goats and cheese (and yogurt! hmmm, wonder if there’s such a thing as goat butter…). Yum!!! I keep eyeing my cultivated wild meadow garden in front of the Pullet Palace and wondering if I couldn’t turn it into a goat yard… Just two little goats!!! Sigh. As for the recipe, it would be easy to halve (thank goodness), so go for it! Let me know what you think.

6. Cinj - April 26, 2008

Mmm, sounds mouth wateringly yummy! I’ll have to try it sometime. I wonder if I could make it seem like the boxed variety that the kids prefer. They’re rather choosy when it comes to trying anything “new”. Darn family anyway.

Ha!!! Maybe if you just mounded it on their plates instead of letting them see that it came out of the Crock-Pot instead of a box, they’d be willing to give it a shot.

7. James - February 8, 2009

This recipe sounded so good I had to try it. I’m sorry to say that I was disappointed with the result. I cooked it for the full 4 hours, but no “crust” (not even close). Also, there was no cheese sauce. The cheese had begun to form into small granules which did NOT adhere to the pasta. And I feel the macaroni was overcooked. (Common sense told me that cooking it for an additonal 4 hours AFTER it had alread been cooked to done might come out this way.) It was altogether pretty dry. Any suggestions about how to salvage it would be appreciated, along with any suggestions about where I might have gone wrong.

Yikes, James, I’m sorry you had such a disappointing experience! I’ve made this recipe many times, mostly because it’s the one that most people request (once they’ve tried it) when I ask what they’d like for me to make, and I find it hugely reliable. So, on to troubleshooting: I’m going to assume that you used all the ingredients in the quantities listed, used regular (rather than any kind of “healthy”) macaroni, and cooked it just to al dente (still chewy rather than soft) before adding it to your slow cooker. So my question for you is, what kind of slow cooker are you using? It wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask this except that I subscribe to Cook’s Country magazine, which does product comparisons, and I still remember how surprised I was to read their review of about a dozen slow cookers and how differently they performed. I make this mac’n’cheese in a Rival Crock-Pot with a removable ceramic insert. If you’re using a different brand, you might have to play with the settings, timing, and ingredient proportions a bit to make the recipe work in your machine. One last thought: This recipe makes a custardy rather than a sauced mac’n’cheese; the eggs cause the cheesy part to cling to the pasta, so you would never have any sauce running on your plate. But it shouldn’t be dry! And mine always forms a brown, bubbly crust on top. As for how to salvage that whole slow cooker of inedible mac’n’cheese you’ve already made—we would feed it to our dog and chickens if it came out dry but mushy, eeewww!—if I were you, I’d be tempted to reheat it in the slow cooker, then transfer it to a baking pan, stir in browned hamburger and tomato sauce, top with mozzarella, and run it under the broiler to brown the cheese topping. Hopefully then it would at least be edible! Sorry about that. If you try again, please let me know how it turns out!

8. James - February 10, 2009

Thanks for the comments/suggestions/questions. In response to your questions: I used regular sharp cheddar cheese, as I was unable to find white. I used a “regular” macaroni from Barilla, cooked al dente. I’m also using a Rival Crock-Pot (6 qt) on low setting (only has two settings). There was quite a bit of water (condensed steam) on the inside of the lid, and one could see the liquid in the contents bubbling, until about 3 hours into the cooking. By the time the entire 4 hours was up, there was no moisture apparent on the lid or in the mac & cheese. The “topping” cheese had melted, but the only color was from the paprika. It was as described in my earlier message. I ended up emptying it all out into a large baking pan, adding some butter & half & half, and baking it for 30 minutes at 400 degrees. Turned out edible. Don’t have an animal, and hate to waste food. Next time I think I’ll just try baking it in the oven.

Hi James! Thanks for the update!


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