Since Thomas Jefferson first brought it to the United States, Macaroni and Cheese has grown to become one of America's national dishes. When Kraft Foods introduced their boxed mac and cheese in the 1930's it was an instant hit as it was cheap, filling, and quick to make. But if you've ever tried to make macaroni and cheese from scratch you know it's anything but quick. The process usually involves making a roux, which then goes into making a sauce, which is then mixed with the macaroni before it's baked in the oven.
I'm not a huge fan of baking mac and cheese because it makes the pasta mushy on the inside and chewy on top. Also, the dairy solids and fat in the cheese tend to separate in the oven leaving you with a greasy mess. For me, the only redeeming part about an oven baked mac and cheese is the crispy bread crumb topping.
That's why I set out to make a macaroni and cheese that still has the crispy topping but can be made in around the time it takes to prepare the kind the comes out of a blue cardboard box. To accomplish this, I decided to do two things. The first was to the simplify the cheese sauce. The second was to pan fry the bread crumbs in butter so you don't need to bake the whole thing.
I know it may sound odd, but the inspiration for this simple cheese sauce came from techniques used to make chocolate ganache and cheese fondue. Normally a cheese sauce is made by cooking flour in butter and creating a roux. This not only thickens the sauce it adds richness. Chocolate ganache is made by adding chocolate directly to hot cream. I figured if you can do it with chocolate, why not do it with cheese.
Because melted cheese is already pretty thick, it doesn't need a ton of help in that department, however it does have a tendency to clump when shredded and it also tends to separates when melted. This is where the fondue technique comes in. When making fondue, you toss the shredded cheese with starch. This keeps the cheese from clumping but it also helps keep it from separating when melted. The starch also provides just a bit of thickening power to keep the sauce draped around each elbow of macaroni. The best part of doing it this way is that it eliminates the need to make a roux, which not only speeds things up, it cuts out a few steps were novice cooks often make mistakes.
I use a mixture of Cheddar and Gruyere for my mac and cheese because I like the flavor, but you could really use just about any kind of cheese that melts. I've also kept the seasonings to a minimum to really bring out the flavor of the cheese, but you can add things like sautéed onions and mushrooms or nutmeg to dress it up a bit. If you happen to end up with leftovers, try turning this into into these Fried Mac and Cheese Balls the next day.
- To make the breadcrumb topping, just melt the butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the parsley and fry until the sizzling has subsided. Add the panko and fry, stirring constantly so it browns evenly. It's done when it's about the color of the crust of sandwich bread. Transfer the toasted bread crumbs to a plate and wipe out the frying pan with paper towels so you can make the sauce in it.
- Boil the macaroni according to the package directions in well salted water. In a small bowl, add the two cheeses along with the starch and toss with you fingers to evenly distribute.
- When there's about 3 minutes left on the clock for the pasta, add the cream and milk to the frying pan, and place over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, then sprinkle in the cheese a small handful at a time, using a silicone spatula to stir the mixture until each addition of cheese completely melts. Continue adding the cheese in small batches and melting until its all incorporated. Salt to taste.
- When the macaroni is done, drain it, then add it to the cheese sauce. Stir to coat with the sauce. Plate the mac and cheese and sprinkle on the toasted bread crumbs.