I’m a big fan of comfort food: meat loaf and mashed potatoes, chicken soup, chocolate-chip cookies. And of course, mac and cheese.
Like most of you, I grew up on the neon orange stuff that comes in the blue box. And in my house that was made with margarine, because we had all been told it was better for us. We hadn’t heard of trans fat. Oh well.
So every now and then, when I just have to relive a bit of my childhood, I might whip up a bowl of the orange stuff. But if want something good, it’s got to be made with real cheese, and it’s got to be baked.
I first started making baked mac and cheese when I worked at a restaurant in college. It was pretty good, but not great. Then I saw a recipe when I was in the Bahamas on my honeymoon that included eggs. Sounded interesting, so I tried it when I got home.
Wow. It was amazing. It held together like lasagna instead of being creamy and gooey. And it tasted fantastic.
That’s how I make it now. But until this time I’ve always made it in large batches. This time I decided to see if I could cut the recipe down to make just two servings. The inspiration was these two little crocks I picked up at the thrift store.
I know macaroni doubles in volume when you cook it, so I started by filling one of the crocks about half way. I figured once I added the cheese that should be enough to fill both. Yes, if you didn’t notice in the ingredient listing above, my mac and cheese is half cheese.
Put the macaroni in several quarts of boiling, salted water. Stir occasionally while you’re mixing up the rest of the ingredients.
Here’s a little tip for you, if you’ve ever seen someone crack an egg with one hand and wondered how they do it. Hold it with your index finger on the small end, and the large end pointing toward your palm. This is basically “sideways” to the way you’d normally hold an egg to crack it.
Rap the egg lightly, just enough to crack it, and squeeze gently with your thumb and middle finger. Like this.
Mix the egg, but don’t beat it until it’s fluffy.
Add the sour cream and stir that in.
Now you might be wondering about this one. Sour cream? Really? Well, I was at the store and looking for heavy cream. That’s what I usually put in this. But that day the only thing they had was “whipping cream,” which had extra “stabilizers” and other not-cream stuff in it. I was about to leave for another store when I noticed the sour cream next to it. Hmm, that’s cream. And the fat content is nearly the same as the heavy cream. Let’s give it a shot.
I’d have to do a side-by-side comparison to tell you if the taste difference was noticeable. I’m guessing the sharpness of the cheddar probably makes more difference than the sour cream vs. heavy cream. But I’m more likely to have sour cream in the fridge, and it’s cheaper. So sour cream wins from now on.
Next up is the cheese. Add two cups and mix well.
It would probably be easier to add the pepper right after the cheese, but I nearly forgot it. So I added it last and mixed one more time.
By this time the macaroni should be about done. If it’s not ready, don’t just stand there, start cleaning your measuring spoons. When it’s al dente — which technically means “to the tooth”, but really means “not mushy” — drain the water but leave it in the pot. Put the pot back on the burner, turned off but still hot, and add the butter. Stir until the butter is melted.
Add the macaroni to the rest of the fixings and stir. Work kind of fast. As the heat from the macaroni starts to melt the cheese it will get sticky and hard to stir. That’s why the butter went in the noodles. It keeps them lubed up just long enough to mix in the cheese.
Fill the crocks about half way with the mixed mac and cheese, add an extra layer of cheddar, then add the rest.
Put the lids on and bake at 350° for 20 minutes. Remember the lids will be very hot when they come out. With mine, tongs get a better grip than my oven mitts. Also notice that I’ve got the crocks on a baking sheet. They weren’t filled quite enough to worry about bubbling over, but it made it easier to handle them both together.
At this point it’s gooey and delicious. And my 8-year-old thinks it’s absolutely perfect.
But I like crust. I’m the kind of person who wants the nearly-burned pieces of cheese from the edge of a lasagna. So I need to top this. Add a slice of swiss to the top of each crock, then just enough cheddar to add some color.
Put it under the broiler and keep an eye on it. It’s already really hot, so it will start bubbling almost immediately.
As soon as the top starts getting a few brown spots, pull it. Remove the crocks to a wooden cutting board to cool. I could have used trivets, but the crocks would have slid around.
After a minute or two to cool, you can see the beautiful crust on top.
Mmmmmm … baked cheese … [drool]
Remember when I said that this slices like lasagna?
And remember how I said that there is as much cheese as there is macaroni?
Serve as a meal by itself, or alongside the meat of your choice. In this case a grilled smoked pork chop.
And that’s it.
Oh, and a funny story about the smoked pork chops. I took some leftovers to work the next day. I warmed it up in the microwave and went back to my desk to eat. Within seconds people were looking over the top of cubes asking, “Who’s got the bacon?” Heh.
Want more like this? For more recipes like this, that you can hold right in your hands, and write on, take notes, tear pages out if you want (Gosh, you're tough on books, aren't you?) you might be interested in How To Cook Like Your Grandmother, 2nd edition, Illustrated. Or to learn your way around the kitchen, check out Starting From Scratch: The Owner's Manual for Your Kitchen.