by Hilary Havarti
After Suzy G and I identified cream cheese as the secret ingredient in the mac and cheese at Joan’s on Third, I embarked on quest to find a similar recipe. Google search yielded several results but one particular recipe, Cream-Cheesy Macaroni and Cheese*, found on a site called www.recipezaar.com, rose to the top with an overall user rating of almost five out of five stars (the fifth star was about three quarters shaded in). Cooks across the country raved, "Amazing. Best baked mac and cheese I've made so far. The cream cheese really makes the difference" and "Good, easy and it makes a LOT!" And so, with the confidence of the fourteen cooks that took the time to rate the recipe preceding me, I pressed on.
*Dieters beware. Requiring one pound of Cheddar cheese and eight ounces of cream cheese, this is not what I’d call a “slimming” recipe. But hey, you gotta live a little, right?
* 1 lb elbow macaroni
* 3 tablespoons butter
* 1 tablespoon flour
* 3 cups milk
* 8 ounces cream cheese (reduced-fat OK)
* 16 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
* breadcrumbs (optional)
Spray a 9x13" glass casserole dish with cooking spray. Set aside.
Cook the pasta according to package directions, in a large pot. Drain, rinse, and return to the large pot. Set aside.
In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat.
Add the flour, and cook until bubbly (about a minute).
Add the milk slowly, stirring after each addition and cook until slightly thickened.
Add the cream cheese, again stirring until completely melted.
Season with salt.
Remove from heat.
Carefully pour the cream cheese mixture over the pasta, stirring gently to combine.
Add the shredded Cheddar cheese, stirring to combine.
Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish, top with bread crumbs if desired, and bake at 350 for 20 minutes.
Now that I’ve (DUH!) started using my Cuisinart to grate cheese, I’m amazed at the limited prep-time, not to mention my forearm is much better for it. I had everything ready to roll in about 20 minutes.
First step was to melt the margarine into a large pot with the flour to get your roux on. Once that started to sizzle, I gradually added the milk until slightly thickened - pretty standard fare roux preparation. Next, I added the cream cheese to the roux and was instructed to stir until smooth. After lots of stirring, the cream cheese had mostly broken down but there were still little globs scattered throughout the sauce. I didn’t want to turn up the heat for fear of charring the bottom of the pan so I grabbed a whisk and let her rip. That was just the ticket and after a few quick flicks of the wrist, the sauce, she was nice and smooth. But, here’s where things got a little unpredictable. Instead of melting the cheddar into the sauce as is usually done in mac prep, the recipe said to dump the cream cheese sauce over the noodles then stir in the grated cheese unmelted. Quelle surprise! I’d seen this done at two different diners on Diners, Drive Ins and Dives and figured, if it’s good enough for Guy Fieri, it’s good enough for me. I did as advised, throwing the cheddar into the pot with the coated noodles and I won’t lie, it did clump together here and there, though I think that’s part of what makes this mac special.
“Breadcrumbs optional” is listed above, but for me there is no option but to use them. I whipped up a topping of 1 1/2 cups of panko bread crumbs and and 1 tbs of melted butter and sprinkled that on top. Popped it into the oven for twenty minutes and voila, delicious cream cheesy mac emerged.
Taking one bite of this mac and cheese, the first words that sprung to mind were, “This Is It!” Granted I’d just seen the Michael Jackson film of the same name (which I loved and highly recommend if you are a fan). Rich, creamy, comforting and sublime, this mac is “such stuff as dreams are made on.” (Thanks, Shakespeare!) Suzy Gruyere and The Humboldt Fog along with their discriminating palates, were also fans. Suzy G said, "Just like the NYT mac and cheese with the surprise ingredient of smooth-blended cottage cheese, the melted cream cheese in this recipe does double duty, keeping everything moist and kicking up the tangy end of the flavor profile. It’s definitely a winner!" And the Humboldt Fog added, "It doesn’t taste like mac and cheese you’d get in a restaurant but rather a really good homemade dish." I’ll take that as a compliment.
Placing first at the Mac Attack Potluck followed closely by Jessica Raymond’s Holy Moly Macaroni and Cheese, a few critics found my dish a little “too rich.” That may be true but the combo of cream cheese and Cheddar lends the dish not only luscious texture, but a tangy cheesy flavor. I may use less cream cheese in the future to cut the richness but only when I have time to experiment and the stakes aren’t as high. I needed to bring my A game to the competition.
Stay tuned for more winning recipes.