I am not a food historian but if there is one dish that can be claimed as a traditional American dish, macaroni and cheese would be one of them.
I can think of one unique mac & cheese experience. I had leftover mac & cheese at a friend's place (at least four years ago) and I found out that his roommate was a waiter at Blue Smoke and he would sometimes take leftover mac & cheese home. I was at lost of words and vowed to go to Blue Smoke for fresh mac & cheese. 4 years have past and I finally had Blue Smoke's mac & cheese sometime around last November. The mac and cheese at Blue Smoke is very creamy and very cheesy yet not heavy at all. Go figure.
After sitting on a recipe for 3 months, I finally got around making mac & cheese. My main references are Martha Stewart and Alton Brown's recipes with my own modification as usual.
4.5 cups of grated cheese
(approximately 20 ounces or 1.2lbs of total cheese). I used 50% white sharp cheddar and 50% Cabot.
half a pound elbow pasta
half a yellow onion, diced
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
3 cups of milk
Panko bread crumbs
1 bay leave (optional)
Pinched of cayenne pepper powder or paprika (optional)
many recipes asked for mustard but I did not use it in this dish.
1. Heat the oven to 375F.
2. Boil a pot of water and cook the pasta to al dante according to the manufacturer's instructions. At the end of cooking the pasta, rinse it under cold water to stop the cooking and drain the pasta completely.
3. Melt the butter in a large pot using medium heat.
4. Add the flour to the melted butter and keep stirring until all the lumps disappear. This thing that you just make is called a roux, which is a thickener.
5. Stir in milk, bay leaf, onion and paprika.
6. Simmer this at medium heat for about 10 minutes until the sauce thickens. Remove the bay leaf.
7. Stir in 3/4 of the cheese and make sure the cheese are completely melted in the sauce.
8. Season with salt and pepper. (I made a mistake here which you can read about at the end)
9. Mix the cooked and drained pasta into the cheese sauce.
10. Transfer the cheese-coated pasta to a pyrex dish or any baking dish. Cover the top of the pasta with one layer of the reaming cheese and sprinkle the panko bread crumbs over the cheese.
11. Baked for 30 minutes until the panko break crumbs turn brown.
12. Let it set for 5 minutes before serving.
The MOST challenging part of making this dish was grating the cheese (I want to thank the Hayes for lending me their cheese grater). Took me about 30 minutes to grate all the cheese and my arms were sore at the end. I wonder how the mac & cheese would taste like with grated cheese from the grocery store. There may or may not be any differences but I like the fact that I can grate the cheese of my own choosing.
I was fortunate to have two food-tasters and they gave me encouraging feed backs. I warned them that my mac & cheese was too salty and they agreed. When I was salting the cheese sauce, I decided, unwisely, to over-salt it expecting the pasta to balance the saltiness. Nope, it didn't and it was a big mistake. You should salt the cheese sauce to your exact preference. Lesson learned.
Another problem that I am yet to figure out how to overcome is this - the pasta came out over-cooked after the baking. Which begs the questions: should I under cook the pasta first? or should I increase the baking temperature while reducing the baking time? Only a second trial will answer these questions.
Back to blue smoke. I have a feeling that they put their mac & cheese under a broiler for 5 minutes to brown the bread crumbs (do they even have bread crumbs on their mac & cheese??)