Now that the holidays are behind us, I got back down to my mac + cheese experimentation last night.
Recap: We've tried 2 different kinds of mac + cheese recipes: my mom's recipe, which is not as unique as I thought (see this recipe from the NY Times). And the wildly over-the-top custard-based recipe from Cooks Illustrated.
From the first recipe, we liked the gooey-ness, but not the Velveeta. From the second, we loved the breadcrumb topping, but found the sauce overpowering.
The Plan: So, it was time to try a bechamel/white-sauce variety of mac + cheese. There are endless examples of this version, but I narrowed down to 3 recipes: Martha Stewart's so-called Crack-n-Cheese, Ina Garten's variation, and an LA Times "House" recipe. Phineas and I decided to start with Ina Garten's recipe, which called for the lowest cheese-to-pasta ratio (20 oz cheese:1lb pasta), figuring that we can increase from there. One thing we borrowed from Martha was cooking the pasta al dente and then rinsing it so that the additional starch would not make the sauce grainy. That step worked very well.
The results: Rich. Leaden. There was entirely too much sauce. When I dumped it into our casserole dish, there was more sauce than pasta, and it was more cream sauce-like than cheesy. It was just as overpoweringly decadent as our previous attempt. We could not eat very much of it, and were both left feeling bloated and yet not satisfied.
Epiphany: That is when it occurred to me that this is why American's are fat. Perhaps to sell cookbooks - or bowls of mac + cheese - you have to produce a recipe that stresses "bigger-better-more" over "balance". And that is not what I am looking for. Don't get me wrong, I am not counting calories here. But what I want is a dish like the one I had in Montreal. It was just right; I cleaned my plate and yet didn't feel gross or bloated or like I had eaten a lead bar. It was cheesy and creamy in just the right proportion.
The Verdict: Back to the drawing board. This recipe was too rich, without being cheesy enough. I don't think that increasing the amount of cheese would help since this mac + cheese is just too rich to begin with. I have a plan to move forward, but here is where we are going to take a big leap away from mac+cheese recipes and into guesswork and tinkering. It could get ugly.
How ugly? Well, I promised Phineas that I wouldn't subject him to mac+ cheese every week, so I will be back in 2 weeks with a next version.