Mac & Cheese Theory / by Anne

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Ahhh…nothing says “summer” like piping-hot mac & cheese.  Ice cream? Sno-cones? Overrated! 

 

Well, I’m kidding.  However, if your cheese plate from that backyard gathering left you with some tired leftover slices of cheese, you now have the beginnings of the best mac & cheese ever made. Yes, it’s 90 degrees outside, and you are a piping-hot person.  But I’m talking an easy dinner that will blow your mind with its deliciousness, not to mention a zesty, lunchtime companion to your crisp salad tomorrow.  And virtuously, you didn’t waste that beautiful cheese that people were too full to finish off earlier today.  How much better does it get? How can it be better than the Best?

 

Beecher's "World's Best" Mac & Cheese

The aptly named “World’s Best” Mac & Cheese comes from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, a cheese shop located at Seattle’s Pike Place Market.  Beecher's creates their mac & cheese with their own artisan cheese made from local cows’ milk, along with a few other key ingredients.  I went down to Beecher’s a couple of years ago to sample some of this legendary stuff, having already tasted another World’s Best macaroni & cheese at Sylvia’s, a soul food restaurant in Harlem.  That was some good eatin', and very hard to beat.  Yes, I was a little jaded.  How could it be better than Sylvia’s?  

 

So I bought a tiny cup of the stuff and stood casually near the cashier’s station, planning to browse the cheeses while sampling.  Zounds!  Sylvia who?  My first bite announced itself with rich and zesty-red surprise.   I literally had to go and take a seat so that I could be alone with this new experience.  Beecher’s mac & cheese is distinctive among the others because it makes a unique statement with smoky-hot, multi-layered flavors.  It is possible that I surreptitiously licked the sides of that empty cup.  It is possible that people next to me were doing the same; I don't know about them, because I had already turned around and bought another cup, with plans to bring friends and loved ones to Beecher's immediately.

 

You can have this.  Beechers’ Cheese founder Kurt Beecher Dammeier was generous to share the recipe in his cookbook, Pure Flavor: 125 Fresh All-American Recipes From The Pacific Northwest.  I have made this recipe many times and can tell you a few things about it:  Like most mac & cheese recipes, it is very forgiving.  It is very easy.  You won’t even need the recipe, really (although it's posted here, too).  All you need to know are the key factors for making the Best:

 

Fundamentals for "World's Best" Mac & Cheese 

  • Like many mac & cheese recipes, start with a roux-based white sauce, then add good cheese. 
  • Make more sauce than you think you need, using more cheese than you can possibly believe.
  • Use several varieties of cheeses, giving the sauce a complex flavor—the greater the quality, the finer the outcome.  However swanky you get, though, do include some yellow cheddar. 
  • Use a small amount of a spice that brings heat—such as cayenne—to augment cheese flavors.  If you are hoping to recreate the Beecher’s version, though, chipotle chili powder is essential.
  • Include a hint of garlic.
  • Use any tubular or ridge-filled pasta that will hold lots of sauce (read: cheese). Beecher’s uses penne.
  • Combine sauce and pasta, making sure the high sauce-to-pasta ratio leaves it almost soupy.
  • Put it in a casserole dish.  Cover with, yes, more cheese and some spice. 
  • Bake until you have some of the crunchy parts at the edges—for more variety in flavors and textures.

Note: These are factors specifically for creating a Beecher’s style of mac & cheese.  Other excellent recipes have “secret”  ingredients or techniques as well.  Have you tried mustard?  How about a custardy, casserole type with egg?  Sylvia uses egg in hers, along with sugar and an impressive amount of pepper, for a dreamy, more traditional macaroni & cheese

 

Food Safety

If you really are using some leftover cheese from today’s event—like I just did—then you can tear up the slices and add them to the grated cheese mix that will go into the sauce.  An afternoon’s lack of refrigeration won’t make aged cheese go bad (I hear that the industry standard for safety is four hours, and that includes more volatile ingredients such as meat or mayo), but I think that returning cheese to the fridge after sitting out a bit causes it to taste “off.”  This is why using it right away in tonight’s dinner is my favorite solution.  Seeing how I’m not going to recommend you do anything unsafe, I’d officially recommend heeding the four hour rule.  However, it was more like five hours for my cheese, and the whole family is doing great after eating substantial servings.

 

About the Cheese Ratios

In the recipe below, it’s not necessary to obsess too much about measurements and weights with the cheese.  Use mostly semihard cheese, throw in a bit of semisoft cheese, and have the whole amount add up to at least 4 cups grated. You can even add small amounts of true hard, flavorful cheese such as Asiago or Parmigiano Reggiano to add depth, but don’t use too much, because it will affect the texture.  About an ounce of the hardest stuff is great.

 

Chipotle Chili Powder and Adding Heat to Mac & Cheese

Chipotle Chili Powder is part of the Beechers’ Mac & Cheese signature flavor. I recommend you give it a try at least once, even if you, like me, don't usually actively seek out chipotle flavor.  Here it merges seamlessly with the complexity of the multi-cheese sauce, further deepening the flavor.  However, this chili powder is quite spicy, so be attentive to how much heat you are adding to your sauce.  Alternatively you can add a small amount of cayenne to taste.  Cayenne will add heat, depending on the amount, and augment the cheese flavors, but will not taste as distinctive as Beecher’s does with the chipotle.  Even if you wish to have a heat-free dish, I recommend even the tiniest pinch of one of these spices.  Adding a tiny pinch of cayenne is a fantastic secret for augmenting the flavor of many dishes, not just mac & cheese. 

 

Beechers’ Style “World’s Best” Mac & Cheese

Adapted from Pure Flavor: 125 Fresh All-American Recipes From The Pacific Northwest.  

 

For Cheese Sauce

¼ cup unsalted butter

⅓ cup all-purpose flour

3 cups milk

14 oz semihard cheese, grated, ~3 ½ cups (cheddar, Gruyère, Swiss, Gouda, Provolone, Emmenthaler, Beecher’s Flagship)*

2 oz semisoft cheese, grated, ~ ½ cup (Colby, Fontina, brick, Havarti, Montery Jack, mozzarella)*

½ tsp kosher salt

⅛ teaspoon garlic powder

¼ to ½ tsp chipotle chili powder

For Pasta and Toppings

12 oz tubular pasta (high-quality, pasta would be welcome here)

Kosher salt for pasta water

2 oz cheddar, grated ~ ½ cup

2 oz Gruyere, grated ~ ½ cup

½ tsp chipotle chili powder, or more, if desired (this will be to sprinkle atop your final product.  See above for the chipotle chili powder notes.  If you are not using chipotle and do not wish to add more heat with cayenne, you can also sprinkle the top with sweet paprika, which adds a lovely color and some flavor without added heat.) 

 

  1. Preheat oven to 350˚ F.
  2. Set a large pot of water on high heat.
  3. Meanwhile, begin the sauce by making a roux: in a medium saucepan melt the butter over medium heat.  Whisk in the flour.  Continue to stir this roux over medium heat for two to three minutes.   The roux should be “cooked” and free of the flour flavor but still light in color.
  4. Gradually add milk, whisking briskly to maintain a smooth sauce.   
  5. Cook the sauce for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid scorching.   When sauce thickens slightly, turn heat to very low.
  6. If you have a moment, place the salt, garlic powder, and chili powder together in a mortar and pestle and grind them together to coax additional flavor from the spice and to coat the salt with the spice’s flavor. You could also use a bowl and the back of a spoon for this.
  7. Add cheeses and spice mixture to the sauce, and stir until all the cheese has melted.
  8. Somewhere during this sauce-cooking process, your pasta water has started boiling.  Add a generous palmful of salt to the water and cook the pasta until almost—but not quite—al dente (two minutes before the package directions indicate).  You want barely undercooked pasta so that it can finish in the oven later.  Halt the cooking by draining the pasta and rinsing with cold water.  Return pasta to pot.
  9. Pour sauce over pasta and stir until completely incorporated.  The combination should be fairly saucy, almost soupy.  Dish the mixture into a buttered 9”-13” pan and sprinkle with grated cheeses and chipotle powder.
  10. Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes, until you have beautiful, browned edges.  Those edges will be a welcome and flavorful addition to each serving.  Let the dish sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Serve small portions with something raw and fresh; this dish is rich.

Makes 8 small yet decadent servings.