One of the first meals I ever ate with Abe's family included a favorite of his: Baked Mac 'n' Cheese. It's his grandma's recipe, and he has enjoyed it ever since fetus-hood. He would eat (and probably has) and entire pan of the stuff without blinking if the rest of the family, also ardent fans, allowed it. Alas, they do not. They all eat it with great gusto and appreciation.
I, on the other hand, eschewed mac 'n' cheese as a child. I wouldn't touch the stuff with a ten foot pole. (I'm sure my mother was pleased as punch about that. I also never cared for bologna or peanut butter and jelly, but that's better left for another post.) I never ate mac 'n' cheese until I was a starving college student, by which point either a) my taste buds had developed more fully, or b) my poverty-induced hunger and need for a cheap meal trumped my lactose intolerance and general dislike of cheese. Either way, I was a relative mac 'n' cheese newbie well into my adulthood, and when I did eat the stuff, it was usually the neon-orange stuff from the blue box (or its equally-orange but less-expensive generic counterpart) or other saucy versions.
So when I sat down to sample Abe's family's mac 'n' cheese, I was stymied; it looked simply like baked noodles. Plain baked noodles. Later, after inquiring after the recipe, I realized that it was in fact a closer relative to scalloped potatoes than the mac 'n' cheese that I knew and, well, tolerated. I personally found it to be fantastically mushy, indescribably bland, and altogether unsatisfying. This was apparently no problem with the rest of the family--they polished off the entire 9x13 dish in a matter of seconds without needing my help.
Well into our marriage, the subject of baked mac 'n' cheese was a hot-button one in our household. I told Abe that I'd make anything he liked to eat in the kitchen--except his grandma's baked mac 'n' cheese. Of course, that only meant that he'd ask for it more repeatedly. It took me a while, but I finally hit on this solution: I would make a dish that had all of the qualities I thought mac 'n' cheese should have, and would bake it to give Abe the satisfaction of having his requests met. When it comes down to it, this version is neither bland nor mushy, and it is really satisfying--even more than the kind with the bright orange cheese-flavored powder. So I'm totally satisfied by this incarnation, and as for Abe, well--who really cares? He's not cooking anything anytime soon.
I started with Alton Brown's version of Stove-Top Mac 'N' Cheese and modified it slightly--I doubled the amount of pasta, while leaving the rest of the ingredient list intact. And I only use a total of 8 oz. of shredded cheese, putting 4 oz. in the actual pasta, and sprinkling the rest on top before running it under a broiler on low to give the illusion of being baked. (Don't tell.)
So, thanks Alton, for the inspiration (and the recipe).
Go-To Mac 'n' Cheese
1 lb. penne pasta
4 Tbsp. butter
6 oz. evaporated milk
1/2 tsp. hot sauce
1 tsp. kosher salt
Fresh black pepper to taste
3/4 tsp. dry mustard
8 oz. shredded cheddar (or the cheese of your choice), divided
Cook the pasta in well-salted boiling water until JUST al dente. be very careful not to overcook (unless you like your noodles mushy like my husband does). Drain, and return to the pot, tossing with the butter until the pasta is coated and the butter is melted.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, hot sauce, salt, pepper, and mustard. Stir egg mixture into the pasta, add 4 oz. of the cheese, and put some low heat under your pot. Stir for about 3 minutes more, or until the sauce is creamy.
Spray a casserole dish with cooking spray (you'll thank me later) and add pasta to dish. Sprinkle remaining cheese over top of the pasta, and place under a broiler set at low* until the cheese is as golden brown as you like it.
*Note: if your broiler doesn't have high/low settings, just put the mac 'n' cheese on a really low rack in the oven, and watch it carefully so it doesn't burn. Or, you can actually bake it--I'd suggest about 25 minutes at 375 degrees, or, again, until it's as golden as you like. JUST MAKE SURE that your pasta isn't too done before you start baking, or else you're going to end up with mush during the baking process--the pasta will absorb much of the sauce. If you like it mushy, though, of course, proceed with all manner of overcooking. I will try not to judge.
Serves: I've never gotten an actual count of how many this could feed, since it generally just all gets eaten by Abe. As a side dish, though, I bet it could feed 6. But not in this household.