Alimentary, My Dear
Mac and Cheese — Thinking Outside the Box
By Tamia Nelson
August 16, 2011
My mother needed to feed a numerous brood at a time when paydays didn't come often enough, so she soon mastered the art of stretching a dollar. Her meals were simple, tasty, and filling — what we'd now call "comfort food" — but they were also cheap. They had to be, because the alternative was too little food on too few plates. It's no surprise, I suppose, that we kids looked forward to mealtimes. This was especially true on cold, rainy days, when the long walk from school — yes, kids walked to and from school back then, often trudging a mile or more each way — left us chilled to the bone. On such days, nothing lifted our spirits like being greeted at the kitchen door by the tantalizing aroma of a meal in preparation. Baked macaroni and cheese was a favorite. Mom always used real cheese. After all, we lived in the heart of dairy country. Grandma Moses' old farm was just a few miles down the road, and the clerk at the corner store kept a big wheel of sharp Cheddar under a glass dome, slicing off wedges to order. Butter was plentiful, too, and it was still pretty cheap. So buttered bread crumbs usually topped my mother's mac and cheese. It was a meal well worth walking a mile for.
And it still is. Of course, my culinary horizons have expanded a bit since my school days. Even my camp menus reflect this. I've experimented with Asian, Mediterranean, and Mexican cuisines, and I've embraced fusion cooking with unbounded enthusiasm. But I haven't lost touch with my roots altogether. The meals I crave most as the days get shorter and the evenings grow chill are — you guessed it — the comfort foods of my childhood. This is reflected in my master camp menu, where mac and cheese enjoys three‑star billing.
It didn't always occupy its present place at the top of my personal pops, however. To be brutally honest, my early attempts at campfire mac and cheese were …
Nothing to Walk Home For
I began by searching the HyperMart aisles for something quick and easy. Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner was my first choice. It's a favorite with culinarily challenged students, and that seemed promising, so I gave it a try. But it wasn't a success. Still, I wasn't about to stumble at the first hurdle. The upshot? I kept working my way along the HyperMart's shelves, sampling one heavily advertised national brand after another, then moving on to their store‑brand counterparts. Nothing I tried came close to Mom's — though the noodles‑and‑sauce mixes sold by Lipton and imitated by some store brands led the pack. They're inexpensive, easy to make, and reasonably tasty. They also travel well. Even at their best, however, they don't approach the toothsome, cheesy goodness of homemade mac and cheese. And that left me with only two choices. I could give up. Or I could try my hand at …
Making My Own
It was no contest. I chose the latter course. My strategy was simple. I planned to deconstruct the homemade dish and then replicate it in a new, camp‑friendly format. I've had good luck doing this with other favorites, like apple crisp, pizza, and brownies. So I figured I'd give it a try with mac and cheese.
The goal? A one‑pot meal that was simple enough to prepare on a camp stove, yet with a taste close to homemade. Mac and cheese worth walking (or paddling) a mile for, in other words. And my starting point? Skillet pasta. Then, once the pasta had cooked, I'd make the cheese sauce right in the same pot.
Did it work? It did. And now I'll show you how to make it work for you.
Here's what you'll need:
- Pasta (choose your favorite)
- Dry milk (nonfat, low‑fat, or whole)
- Cheddar cheese (mild, sharp, or extra sharp)
A few comments before we get started: Classic mac and cheese is made with elbow macaroni, but you can use any sturdy pasta that has nooks and crannies to capture the sauce. I favor pasta shells because they cook more quickly than elbow macaroni and still hold plenty of sauce in the hollows. But for this trial, I picked a fancy pasta called campanelle. For the cheese, I chose a sharp yellow Cheddar. Use white Cheddar if you like — the results will be the same — and if you prefer mild or extra sharp, instead, so be it. I used nonfat dry milk because that's what I had, but you can substitute low‑fat or whole milk powder if you want. Nonfat dry milk keeps better and reconstitutes faster, but the others yield a creamier sauce.
Now let's get down to business. You'll need a pot that's big enough to accommodate your chosen pasta, along with the cooking water and sauce. It's better to have too large a pot than one that's too small, since any overflow will probably gum up your stove. I prefer wide, squat pots — they make stirring and mixing easier — but taller pots are often more fuel‑efficient. Experiment with both to see which works best on your stove.
Once you've settled on a pot, it's time to assemble the ingredients. For two reasonably generous servings you'll need 2 cups of pasta, at least 2 cups of water, a generous pinch of salt, ½ cup of dry milk (that's dry milk powder, not reconstituted fluid milk), and 2 to 3 ounces of Cheddar. (The picture below shows the ingredients.) Put the pasta in the pot, then add the water and salt. You want enough water to cover the pasta completely, and here again it's better to think big. Too much is better than too little. I added a total of 2¼ cups of water in this test‑kitchen trial run, yet some pasta still poked above the surface. So I was prepared to add even more water if the pasta began to boil dry. As luck would have it, however, I didn't need to.
It's time to fire up the stove. You want as much heat at the start as your burner can generate. Only when you have a good, rolling boil should you throttle back to a healthy simmer. Even then, keep your eye on the pot. Boil‑overs are bad news. And be sure to stir the pasta now and then to stop it from sticking. Are you looking for something to do while you're waiting for the water to boil? Well, this is the perfect time to cut up the cheese. Actually, "cut" is a bit of a misnomer here. Shave it, instead. Small shreds melt more evenly than big chunks. (The large piece in the photo below is about as thick as thin cardboard. Anything thicker than that is too thick.)
OK. The water has been simmering for a while. Test the pasta from time to time. As soon as it starts to soften, add the dry milk, stirring continuously until the powder has dissolved:
It's important to keep the heat throttled back now. Stir the pot occasionally, too. (Milk is prone to boil‑overs.) When the pasta has lost its crunch but is still firm — what foodies call al dente — it's done. Take the pot off the flame and set it down on a firm surface. (But not on your upturned canoe hull!) Then, just as soon as the milky sauce stops bubbling, add the cheese (left and right photos, respectively) …
And stir till the cheese has melted into the sauce completely (left photo below). I wanted a somewhat thicker sauce than I got — it is possible to use too much water — so I added about ¼ cup of grated Parmesan at the last minute. You can see it in the photo on the right below, before I stirred it into the pasta:
That's it. You're done. The whole business took five minutes to prep and only 15 minutes to cook. Not bad, eh? And how does it taste? Well, try it for yourself…
The pasta in the photo was cooked just right, and the sauce was creamy and wonderfully cheesy. Though I added a few croutons to give the dish a little extra crunch, it would have been delicious even without them. The bottom line? My homemade easy mac and cheese is far better than anything I've found on the HyperMart shelves.
All right. So much for my trial run in the test kitchen. Now it's …
Doesn't cheese need refrigeration? Yes and no. Soft cheeses spoil quickly, but Cheddar holds up well through a long weekend. With care — and a little luck with the weather — it will keep for a week or more.
Can I use more cheese than you did? Of course. I used about 3 ounces of Cheddar to make the sauce for 2 cups of dry pasta, but you can certainly use more than that if you wish.
Can I use a different kind of cheese? Yes. Brie and Gouda make for a very creamy, flavorful mac and cheese. (But be warned: Brie isn't a great traveler.) Some people even like sauce made with strong blue cheese, though you'll probably find that a very small amount goes a long way. Try it at home first, and remember to wait until the cooking is done before stirring in the cheese.
Can I make more than two servings using your recipe? Again, yes. Adjust quantities up or down at will, allowing 1 cup of dry pasta, 1 cup of water, a small pinch of salt, and 1 to 2 ounces of cheese for each portion. A reminder: If you'll be cooking for a group, be sure your pot is up to the job. Size matters here. As always, it pays to test quantities (and pots) at home, before you hit the road to the put‑in.
My pasta boiled dry before it cooked, and there wasn't any liquid left to make the sauce. What can I do about this? Just add more water as needed during cooking, but don't overdo it. Add no more than ¼ cup at a time.
Can I add milk powder before the cooking begins? You could, but it's not a good idea. Milk powder dissolves faster in hot water than in cold, and since milk is prone to boiling over, the later you add it, the less risk you run.
Why do I have to wait till I've taken the pot off the flame before I add the cheese? Because. (Just kidding!) Here's the real reason: If you add cheese to a simmering sauce, the cheese is likely to separate as it melts, yielding an unappetizing combination of oily sauce and rubbery strings.
Mac and cheese is, well, a little bland. How can I liven it up? Easy. Almost anything goes. Meat, fish, and vegetables are all candidates. But be sure to cook the meat or fish first, and if you don't want raw veggies in your dish, you'll also need to chop them up into bite‑sized pieces and precook them — or add them to the pot early on, while the pasta is simmering. I like to add fresh broccoli florets or dried tomatoes. Remember to increase the amount of water at the start to accommodate any additional ingredients, however, particularly if the extras are dehydrated or freeze‑dried.
I miss the crunchy topping of oven‑baked mac and cheese. Is there some way to get this in camp? Sort of. You can garnish each serving with a few croutons, or crush a few crackers over each plate when the dish is served (Triscuits work well for this). Walnut pieces or other nuts will add crunch, too.
And that's my last word on the subject. Have I left something unsaid? Then just drop me a line and let me know. But now you'll have to excuse me. I'm going to whip up a dish of mac and cheese for lunch.
As days get shorter and nights grow chill, an evening meal of mac and cheese has a lot to recommend it. It's tasty, hearty, and filling. And it warms you up as little else can. But the stuff you buy in a box is nothing like what mother used to make. The good news? You can do a lot better than storebought, even in a riverbank camp. And now you know how.
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