MoM Aug ‘09 ATK American Classics: Macaroni & Cheese

After making Thomas Keller’s Macaroni Gratin, putting together someone else’s Mac & Cheese felt like heresy. Granted, though they are both macaroni and cheese, comparing America’s Test Kitchen to Thomas Keller is like comparing apples to oranges. Maybe not even that close. It’s like comparing an orangutan’s butt to Mars.

Keller’s Macaroni Gratin is a light and creamy perfection with undertones of pepper and onion (that, quite honestly, cannot be omitted in this dish), creating a refined classic. Our Magazine of the Month, America’s Test Kitchen’s American Classics, takes most of our childhood memories and mashes it together into one, definitive dish that they feel is decidedly an American version. Now that I’ve been able to compare the two, I can honestly say:

Thomas Keller’s Macaroni Gratin is the deluxe Bentley of Macaroni and Cheese, the luxury automobile you can’t even afford to stand near and drool over.

America’s Test Kitchen’s Macaroni and Cheese is the 1978 Ford Station Wagon of Macaroni and Cheese, attempting refinement with faux wood panels and power windows. It’s even got that little pop-up seat in the very back. You know what I’m talking about.

I confess I’m a little disappointed in the results because I had read so many wonderful things about it lately on the internet. A couple of different websites had ripped this together and had determined there is no other mac and cheese. Unfortunately, I came to a completely different conclusion.

I think this would have been good if I had omitted one ingredient: Hot sauce. In the back of my mind I knew I shouldn’t stick it in there, but I wanted to be true to the recipe and review it as written. I don’t normally like hot sauce. Sometimes I do, but generally I don’t. So I should have known right away and that was my fault. Had I taken the hot sauce out, would it have been a good dish? Absolutely. Would it have then beaten the Bentley of Macaroni and Cheese? Not a chance. But it’s got a real homespun quality to it, and that’s why you may like it. Hot sauce enthusiasts, such as our web admin, will also enjoy. (I know you’re out there, pouring Frank’s Red Hot on everything you eat.)

CI Mac & Cheese

This mac and cheese is high in fat (three cans of evaporated milk, which has about twice the amount of fat as whole milk) and three kinds of cheese. Staying true to their American Classics theme, there’s a lot of processed American cheese. The creamy sauce has a little kick to it with the addition of hot sauce (which I already mentioned) and dry mustard. To top the whole thing off, a crispy, homemade bread topping is baked on top.

CI Mac & Cheese 3

Foolproof Macaroni and Cheese
From ATK’s American Classics
Serves 8 – 10

Bread Crumb Topping
3 slices hearty white sandwich bread torn into rough pieces
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Pasta and Cheese
1 pound elbow macaroni
Table salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 (12-ounce cans) evaporated milk
2 teaspoons hot pepper sauce
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon dry mustard
8 ounces (2 cups) extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
5 ounces (1 1/4 cups) American cheese, shredded
2 ounces (3/4 cup) Monterey Jack cheese, shredded

CI Mac & Cheese 1

Directions

1. For the bread crumb topping: Pulse bread, melted butter and Parmesan in food processor until ground into coarse crumbs. Transfer to bowl.

2. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees.

3. For the macaroni and cheese: Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add macaroni and 1 tablespoon salt; cook until pasta is al dente, about 6 minutes. Drain pasta and set aside.

4. Melt remaining 4 tablespoons butter in now-empty pot over medium-high heat until foaming. Stir in flour and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture turns light brown, about 1 minute. Slowly whisk in evaporated milk, hot sauce, nutmeg, mustard, and 2 teaspoons salt and cook until mixture begins to simmer and is slightly thickened, about 4 minutes. Off heat, whisk in cheeses and reserved cooking water until cheese melts. Stir in macaroni until completely coated.

CI Mac & Cheese 2

5. Transfer macaroni to 13×9-inch baking dish and top evenly with bread crumb topping. Bake until cheese is bubbling around edges and top is golden brown, about 20 – 25 minutes. Let sit for 5 – 10 minutes before serving.

CI Mac & Cheese 4

If I made this again I’d omit the mustard and hot sauce, and add diced onion and fresh ground pepper to the roux. That would have fixed its problems. Unfortunately, Thomas Keller’s Bentley of Mac and Cheese is the one for me.

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