Properly made, plain old macaroni and cheese can be transcendent. It should be lush with lots of cheesy sauce, and the pasta should be firm and substantial. There should be just enough toasted bread crumbs to give it some crispness (but nobody wants a mouthful of panko). It couldn’t be easier to achieve.
Truly, it’s not so hard. To start, you make a bechamel sauce by first making a roux (cooking butter and flour together until the flour loses its raw taste), then adding milk, a little nutmeg, cayenne, dry mustard and a bay leaf. A traditional bechamel, cooked for about 30 minutes (much longer than a quick bechamel), melds the ingredients together and deepens the flavor. To that you add tangy, mild cheddar and nutty Gruyere. Pour it over cooked macaroni or big shells that cup the cheese sauce so that when you bite into the mac ‘n’ cheese, you get a rush of cheesiness. A judicious amount of panko bread crumbs and some extra cheese provide the perfect crunchy-but-not-impenetrable topping. And then a little extra cream drizzled around the sides before the pan goes into the oven ensures nicely crisp edges.
From the story: When bad mac happens to good people
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Toss the panko bread crumbs with the melted butter on a small baking pan. Toast the bread crumbs until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a large saucepan, heat the butter over medium heat until melted, then stir in the flour. Heat and stir until the mixture is smooth and bubbling, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the milk. Add the dry mustard, white and cayenne pepper, nutmeg, salt and bay leaf. Heat and stir to boiling, then reduce the heat to a low simmer and cook 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the bay leaf.
Stir in 3 cups of the cheddar and all the Gruyere until melted. Pour the sauce over the cooked macaroni in a large bowl, stirring until all of the macaroni is coated. Pour the macaroni into a well-buttered 9-by-13-inch casserole. Drizzle heavy cream around the edges of the casserole. Sprinkle on it the remaining 1 cup cheddar cheese, then the toasted bread crumbs.
Cover the casserole with aluminum foil. Bake 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake uncovered an additional 10 minutes. Put under a preheated broiler for 5 minutes.
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