A childhood comfort food, with a few upgrades like béchamel sauce and a four cheese blend.
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit and set some salted water on to boil. Leave the pasta to the side. The stage is set but not yet ready for the noodles.
- The key to mac and cheese, even more than the pasta, is the sauce. Putting it together is like assembling a string quartet. It starts with a base, in this case butter. Melt three tablespoons in a pan and when it starts to bubble introduce an equal amount of flour and stir till brown. You now have roux, which is a delicious thickening agent for soups, but level up and make this duo a trio by slowly pouring in two cups of cold whole milk and stirring until it’s the consistency of gravy. You now you have béchamel, the secret sauce to make the creamiest lasagnas, scalloped potatoes, and chile con quesos known to man.
- But the signature player is still waiting in the wings. Keep the béchamel over low heat and slowly stir in the three cups of shredded cheese. I use a mix of cheddar, fontina, and a little bit of a soft blue like bleu d’auvergne, at a ratio of about 2:2:1. Cheddar is classic, fontina melts into a creamier sauce, but the blue is optional. I just like the tang. Save the parmesan for the top. Stir the mix into the béchamel until melted and thoroughly integrated.
- You now have mornay sauce, consisting of a base, a middle, a first and second chair, to make up the full quartet and finally we can play Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. This glorious achievement would be enough by itself, and is outstanding on a hot ham or turkey sandwich, or croque madame, but set the sauce back on very low heat, just enough to keep it warm, because this is a chamber piece and still needs a few more notes to round out the ensemble.
- Slice a garlic clove in half and rub it all over the sides of a 9 X 9 inch baking pan or, if you have one, a covered casserole dish. If desired, you can then mince the clove fine or push it through a garlic press and throw it in with the mornay. Butter the pan generously and set aside.
- Take a sauce pan and melt a few tablespoons more of butter. Pour in the panko bread crumbs, stirring and tossing till brown. Set aside.
- Now, finally, the pasta. Once the water boils, throw in a pound of dry pasta. Farfalle, penne, shells, elbows, whatever you prefer as long as it’s got a good shape for holding sauce. Parboil about six minutes. Set a timer. The noodles should still be chewy and undercooked so they can finish in the oven.
- Drain, stirring the noodles in the colander to get out every last bit of moisture. That accomplished, mix the noodles with the mornay sauce, stirring thoroughly, savoring all those beautiful textural gurgles, then pour into the pan.
- Top with a layer of parmesan, followed by a layer of breadcrumbs. Cover and set in the oven at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes. Uncover and bake an additional ten to crisp up the top. Remove and let cool for around 20 minutes before serving. Garnish with fresh ground pepper.
- Optional: slip into PJ’s and put on Mazzy Star.
Premium aged, naturally aromatic, produced in a facility that also uses soy, nuts, dairy, and gluten: these are a few of the words that might be used to describe Cirrus Wood. Or they may just be something he read off a bag of basmati rice he had in the pantry because he didn’t know what to write here. Cirrus is a freelance writer and photographer living in Berkeley, California. His writing has appeared in McSweeneys, to do lists, old year books, and the missed connection section of Craigslist, where he writes personally addressed messages to the drivers who cut him off in traffic.