creamy macaroni and cheese

Creamy stovetop macaroni and cheese

6 April 2012

It’s not hard to make a cheesy macaroni and cheese, but making a creamy one is trickier. Cooks Illustrated ended my disappointing series of dry baked macaroni efforts when it published years ago a blessedly simple recipe for super-creamy macaroni and cheese made in minutes on the stovetop.

Boxed macaroni and cheese is convenient, but this recipe comes close on time and wins by a landslide on taste. While you wait for the water to boil, grate a pile of cheese and mix a can of evaporated milk with a couple of eggs. When the macaroni is ready, pour it together and stir. Then be patient for the magic.

Rush the cheese with heat and it gets grainy, but stir it gently without flame and it melts smoothly on its own. Don’t panic that the sauce looks soupy; let it cool a few minutes and watch it turn deliciously thick.

The genius of the Cooks Illustrated recipe is using evaporated milk, with 60% less water than regular milk, instead of a flour-butter roux for thickness. Heating cheese can be dicey – it can get grainy, stringy or oily – which is why processed cheeses like American cheese and Velveeta exist. A roux can help stabilize the cheese as well as thicken the sauce, but if not cooked properly it can leave a floury taste. This approach is faster, easier and simpler.

Alton Brown’s macaroni and cheese is almost identical to Cooks Illustrated’s, with half the milk for a drier texture. I prefer the extra gooeyness of Cook’s Illustrated’s version, but for those who prefer less cheese sauce, the Alton Brown version is a good variation.

This is a great kid-friendly option for Easter dinner, where the traditional ham or lamb options may not appeal to young ones. But make extra, as I find creamy macaroni and cheese attracts adults as much as kids, no matter what else is being served. Fortunately a double batch is no more work than one.

Our simple ingredients.

While you boil water and cook the macaroni (remember to salt the cooking water and don’t overcook the macaroni) mix the evaporated milk, eggs, salt and pepper. Dry mustard brings out the tanginess of the cheese, but be sure to dissolve it in a bit of water before adding to the mix. I always want to add a dash of cayenne or hot pepper sauce, but for the kids I usually leave it out.

Melt a knob of butter in the hot drained macaroni.

Add the milk/egg mixture and stir over low heat.

Wait for the mixture to get hot, then turn off heat and add cheese. My helpers like this part best.

Most of the cheese makes it in the pot.

The sauce will be thin and soupy at first.

But it thickens as it cools.

The Cooks Illustrated version has more sauce (here still hot and a bit soupy).

Alton Brown’s has less.

Either way, a double batch fits nicely in a 9″x13″ baking dish for serving. Top with toasted buttered breadcrumbs or Panko if you like a bit of crunch. Or, for instant gratification, crumbled crackers.

But I like mine straight-up creamy.

Creamy Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese
Two winning recipes – from Cooks Illustrated and Alton Brown are nearly identical except for the amount of evaporated milk. Cooks Illustrated uses more to make an abundantly creamy cheese sauce; Alton Brown uses less milk for a drier texture.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound elbow macaroni
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 12-ounce can evaporated milk (Alton Brown uses half a can, or 3/4 cup)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 3/4 teaspoon dry mustard, dissolved in 1 teaspoon water (optional)
  • 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce or pinch of cayenne (optional)
  • 12 ounces cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, or a combination, grated (about 3 cups)

Directions

  1. In a large pot of boiling, salted water cook the pasta to al dente and drain. Return macaroni to pan and add butter; toss to melt.
  2. In a bowl, mix together milk, eggs salt, pepper, mustard mixture and pepper sauce/cayenne.
  3. Pour egg mixture over macaroni and heat on low, stirring. When hot, add cheese and turn off heat. Stir until cheese melts. Sauce will seem very soupy but thickens as it cools.

Notes

  • If you like crunch, top with toasted bread crumbs or crumbled crackers. To make toasted breadcrumbs: Mix 1 cup fresh or Panko breadcrumbs and 1 1/2 tablespoons melted butter (add a pinch of salt if using unsalted butter). Bake at 350 degrees F for 15-20 minutes and sprinkle on top before serving the macaroni.
  • A single batch fits in an 8″x8″ baking dish; a double batch fits in a 9″x13″.
  • Cheese gets grainy when heated too much. To maintain creaminess, reheat very gently – low heat on stovetop, low oven, half power in microwave – adding a little milk if needed. The macaroni will still taste good heated quickly, but it won’t be as creamy.

Here’s the link to a printable version.

This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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