Words by Alison Roman, The New York Times News Service
Al dente pasta swirled in a salty, creamy cheese sauce, macaroni and cheese is like a hug wrapped in a warm sweater, unparalleled in its ability to comfort and satisfy. While boxed and frozen varieties have made it impossibly easy to prepare the dish at a moment’s notice, a homemade version is worth the effort.
By definition, classic macaroni and cheese should be made with, well, macaroni, a style broadly defined as any short, cylindrical extruded pasta. This includes tubes like ziti, penne, rigatoni and, yes, elbows, as well as corkscrew shapes like fusilli. All this is to say that plenty of shapes are suitable for macaroni and cheese (many of which are gluten-free). But you will want to make sure you stay in the world of tiny, tubelike shapes or those undeniably cute little shells. (Like cutting a grilled cheese into triangles instead of rectangles, they may actually improve the taste of the finished product, if only in our heads.) Avoid long, thin shapes like spaghetti or linguine.
Elbow enthusiasts should also note that there’s a new kid in town: Cavatappi, a curly, ribbed noodle that’s longer than an elbow, may very well be the platonic ideal for baked macaroni and cheese. Its length and curl perch perfectly on a fork, its ribbing is optimal for gripping luscious sauce, and its thickness (slightly thicker than elbows) decreases any risk of mushiness.
Regardless of which pasta you choose, it’s important to remember two things: Always cook the noodles in water that’s as salty as the sea to season them from the inside out, and make sure they’re cooked more al dente than you might think they need to be. The pasta will continue to cook in the cheesy sauce, which not only gains thickness from the noodles’ starch but also deepens the flavor of the noodles themselves.
The keys to good macaroni and cheese are in the texture, flavor and creaminess of the sauce. Made of just four elements (milk, thickener, cheese and seasonings), it should be pleasantly creamy but not too thick. Note that when the noodles are added to the sauce, they will soak up the liquid like a sponge, and, if there’s not enough, you’ll be left with dry macaroni and cheese: a true punishment.
The rule for cooking with wine also applies to cheese: Don’t cook with anything you wouldn’t want to drink or eat on its own. But the type of cheese can vary depending on the style of macaroni and cheese you are making and your preferred flavors and textures. Cheddar reigns here, somehow always behaving exactly as it should. It melts wonderfully, never breaking or becoming greasy, with just the right amount of salt and tang. Sharp, extra sharp and sharp white are best.
Total time: 25 minutes
450g elbows, shells, cavatappi, farfalle, fusilli or other short, tube-shaped pasta
2 cups whole milk
220g cream cheese, cut into 1-inch pieces
340g sharp or white cheddar, grated
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
Freshly ground pepper
Cook pasta in a large pot of salted water until just barely al dente; drain.
Meanwhile, bring milk up to a simmer in a large pot. (The pot should be large enough to hold all the pasta when cooked.) Reduce heat to low, add cream cheese, and whisk until it’s completely blended and no lumps remain. Add cheddar cheese and butter, whisking until everything is completely melted. Season with salt and a generous amount of pepper.
Add cooked pasta and stir to coat. Continue to cook over medium-low heat until the sauce has thickened and is coating each piece of pasta nicely, 2 to 3 minutes; sauce will continue to thicken as it cools. Season again with more salt and pepper before serving.