Getting Creative with Mac and Cheese

It seems that for years, macaroni and cheese was something you fed to your kids that was made out of a box or something they had at their favorite cafeteria. Over the last several years, mac and cheese has made a tremendous resurgence — it’s become a staple on barbecue menus as well.

Then it got even more fashionable as chefs decided to add lobster to this home-down, low-cost goodie and charge a hefty price, classing it up and billing it the quintessential comfort food. It is kind of funny because classical chefs often shudder at the thought of mixing seafood and cheese (it is a sad paradigm, but a strong one nonetheless).

Well, mac and cheese IS one of the classic comfort foods that really gives you the opportunity to be creative. Besides adding seafood or pork products such as ham or bacon there are countless combinations of cheese that can add a phenomenal taste experience. And to experiment with these cheese combinations is really easy if you know the basics. I have seen some very good diners toss grated cheese into already cooked noodles and then pour a custard mixture (one egg or two eggs per cup of milk whisked together and seasoned), top it with bread crumbs and bake it. This does work well and it gives you kind of a custard-y creaminess. But I’m not crazy on how this process actually mixes the cheeses.

The classic way is to make a cheese sauce, which is referred to as a Mornay sauce. A Mornay sauce is just a Béchamel sauce with cheese melted into it; a Béchamel sauce is considered one of the five “mother sauces.” Béchamel is a fancy name for a white sauce and is made from finely chopped onions (or shallots) butter, flour and milk. You simply sweat the onions in the butter and add the flour. Stir that for a few minutes and then add the milk while whisking constantly. As it comes to a simmer it will reach its full thickness (you can strain out the onions at this point, but it isn’t necessary). Once you have it to this point you can start mixing in grated cheeses at your pleasure. Get creative and see what you come up with. Salt, pepper and a little cayenne are the usual suspects for seasoning. In fact try it with some of the small leftovers of cheese that inevitably accumulate in your cheese drawer and save some money as well. Next thing you know you’ll be naming a mac and cheese dish after yourselves!