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Chad

Mac & cheese failure

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This was originally posted under the "Dinner!" thread, but I realized it would make a better general cooking question.

Last night I made macaroni & cheese. My wife was out of town, and this is what the kids requested. So I thought, fine, if you want mac & cheese, we'll do it my way -- the real thing: bechamel based cheese sauce, decent cheeses, a little spice and baked the way God intended. Ha! I would show the snivling little blue-box lovers what the stuff should taste like :rolleyes:.

Well, it wasn't great. I'm still trying to figure out what went wrong. The sauce was a little thick, kind of grainy and slightly gummy. Flavor was good, but the dish was a textural horror.

I have a couple of possible culprits.

One, I was in a hurry. I'd forgotten that my 8-year-old's last swimming lesson was last night, so I had to rush despite having everything prepped ahead of time. My 13-year-old daughter was helping in the kitchen so I was explaining mise en place to her. Anyway, I rushed the roux. Butter was too hot, I think and the roux went way past blonde immediately. More of a pecan brown, actually.

Two, I made a paste of the other ingredients with the roux before adding the milk. This is a little backward from usual bechamel technique, but it's worked in the past. I added 1T powdered mustard, 1/2t paprika, 1/2t cayenne, a bay leaf and some kosher salt, made a thick paste then whisked in 3 cups of milk a little at a time. Dunno if this really makes a difference or not. Any experts out there?

Three, also in the interest of time I jacked up the heat on the sauce mixture, trying to get it to a simmer faster than it wanted to go. I may have gone overboard, but as I understand it, roux doesn't begin it's thickening until close to the boiling point. I pulled it off the heat before adding the cheese, but it may have been a bit hot, reducing the cheese to gummy string and liquid fat.

Four, my kids were deeply freaked out by white sharp cheddar. To them cheese must be traffic-cone orange or it's not cheese. So we used the Kroger brand medium cheddar I had on hand just in case. Perhaps this cheese has a weird melting point or just doesn't want to work in a sauce. I don't know. When in doubt, blame the ingredients .

Any insights or advice from the collective wisdom of eGullet?

Chad


Chad Ward

An Edge in the Kitchen

William Morrow Cookbooks

www.chadwrites.com

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Not really. I think you've nailed the reasons why it went down that road.


"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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. . . I would show the snivling little blue-box lovers what the stuff should taste like :rolleyes:.

Well, it wasn't great. I'm still trying to figure out what went wrong. The sauce was a little thick, kind of grainy and slightly gummy. Flavor was good, but the dish was a textural horror.

I have a couple of possible culprits.

One . . . I rushed the roux. Butter was too hot, I think and the roux went way past blonde immediately. More of a pecan brown, actually.

Two, I made a paste of the other ingredients with the roux before adding the milk.

Three, also in the interest of time I jacked up the heat on the sauce mixture, trying to get it to a simmer faster than it wanted to go. I may have gone overboard, but as I understand it, roux doesn't begin it's thickening until close to the boiling point. I pulled it off the heat before adding the cheese, but it may have been a bit hot, reducing the cheese to gummy string and liquid fat.

Four, my kids were deeply freaked out by white sharp cheddar.

Chad

To address your points specifically:

One: you're probably right. Roux that is not cooked properly has different thickening power from good roux.

Two: I do that too (dry mustard, cayenne, nutmeg, etc.) and have no problem, so I don't think that's a probable cause.

Three: AHA! You were right to remove the sauce from the heat before adding the cheese -- but if it was indeed hotter than necessary, bingo, stringy cheese.

Four: well, you'll just have to keep trying to teach the little buggers, now, won't you? :raz:

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FWIW, I don't think you need to add a whole lot of cheese to the bechamel sauce. Add some, sure... but the rest of it can just be grated and tossed with the other ingredients to melt in the oven. This will eliminate a possible source of problems and simplify the whole procedure.

IMO, another important element is to cook the pasta well below the threshhold of "al dente" as it will finish softening in the oven. This probably works better with things like penne and ziti than it does with elbow macceroni.

As for the orange color... maybe a little tomato paste in with the roux?


--

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Four, my kids were deeply freaked out by white sharp cheddar.

Four: well, you'll just have to keep trying to teach the little buggers, now, won't you? :raz:

My son was like that. He'd only eat yellow cheddar, and then only if it was shredded.

Then one day a few months ago we were stuck in a crowd at Whole Foods, taking entirely too long to shop, and the boy started wandering around. He discovered, all on his own, the olive bar (with its little sign saying "samples ok") and the platters of cheese set out to sample all around the store.

Today he won't touch yellow cheese, demanding instead Cabot white cheddar, which is what he packed in his lunch this morning (along with a mix of stuffed olives, some with garlic, some with sun-dried tomatoes).

There's hope for all these kids, and they'll get there without a lot of help (just proper exposure to the good things).

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FWIW, I don't think you need to add a whole lot of cheese to the bechamel sauce.  Add some, sure... but the rest of it can just be grated and tossed with the other ingredients to melt in the oven.  This will eliminate a possible source of problems and simplify the whole procedure.

IMO, another important element is to cook the pasta well below the threshhold of "al dente" as it will finish softening in the oven.  This probably works better with things like penne and ziti than it does with elbow macceroni.

As for the orange color... maybe a little tomato paste in with the roux?

Hey, good thought on not mixing all the cheese. I'll have to try that next time. The pasta was well under al dente. I cooked it at a low boil for about 6 minutes (half the suggested time) then shocked it in a bowl of ice water. Turned out perfectly in the casserole. One of the few things that did :rolleyes:. Oh, and the buttered panko on top was absolutely fantastic.

I made the dish again this afternoon. In fact, it's in the oven now. I took a lot more time with the roux, brought the sauce to a simmer then dropped the heat almost all the way back and let it cook for about 10 minutes, took the thickened sauce off the heat until it had cooled significantly before adding the cheese (Cabot extra sharp this time) and just generally babied it a lot more than I did last night. We'll see how it turns out.

Thanks for your help, folks.

Chad


Chad Ward

An Edge in the Kitchen

William Morrow Cookbooks

www.chadwrites.com

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To address your points specifically:

One: you're probably right.  Roux that is not cooked properly has different thickening power from good roux.

Two: I do that too (dry mustard, cayenne, nutmeg, etc.) and have no problem, so I don't think that's a probable cause.

Three: AHA!  You were right to remove the sauce from the heat before adding the cheese -- but if it was indeed hotter than necessary, bingo, stringy cheese.

Four: well, you'll just have to keep trying to teach the little buggers, now, won't you?  :raz:

Thanks, Suzanne!

I think problems one and three are the real culprits as well. I'm trying the dish again right now. That's one of the advantages of working from home. That and the fact that cleaning is so much easier now that I don't have all of those pesky paychecks lying around cluttering the place up :raz:.

Anyway, I'll let y'all know how it turns out. I made another batch so I can try something I saw on Alton Brown's show. He let the mac & cheese casserole rest overnight, cut it into squares, breaded them in more panko and deep fried them. That's just too cool not to try.

Chad


Edited by Chad (log)

Chad Ward

An Edge in the Kitchen

William Morrow Cookbooks

www.chadwrites.com

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So we used the Kroger brand medium cheddar I had on hand just in case. Perhaps this cheese has a weird melting point or just doesn't want to work in a sauce. I don't know. When in doubt, blame the ingredients .

Cheap store-brand cheese is not likely the culprit. Some of the best, most creamy macaroni and cheese I have made was made with, surprisingly, sharp Giant Foods or Safeway cheddar that comes in the economical one-pound or two-pound brick. The key, I think, is that cheap cheddar is usually not aged for long, and such young cheddar melts very well and makes an ultra-creamy mac and cheese. One evening, I tried a costly Vermont white extra-sharp aged cheddar, and the sauce was not as enjoyably creamy; what a waste of a good cheese!

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At least you didn't make the mistake I did, I was suing the Mac and cheese recipe from The Best Recipe (which is quite good when done right) and it calls for 2 teaspoons of salt. Well I was jsut skimming the recipe as I was making it, not really reading it since I KNOW how to make mac and cheese. I dumped all 2 teaspoons into the sauce thinking it seemed like a lot but if that is what they said...... :blink: re-reading it later it seems that 1 1/2 teaspoons of the 2 is to salt the water for boiling the pasta........ :blink:

oops!

inedible! :angry:


Kristin Wagner, aka "torakris"

 

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Depending on your cheese sauce texture preferences, there are a few things that could help.

Using flour (roux) as a thickner tends to lead to a grainy cheese sauce. If that's the way you like it, thats fine, but for those that prefer a smoother sauce, other starches such as rice starch and corn starch can be used. Rice starch is my preference. It thickens and adds body to the sauce without making it gritty. Corn starch is another choice, but it doens't do as good with the sauce body. If you are to try rice or corn starch, my recommendation is to start by still using some roux, and supplement with either.

My guess is that the cheap cheese didn't contribute to the problems you encountered. Some of the best scoring mac n cheese products in the frozen / shelf stable market use cheese ingredients that are simply horrible.

Another thing to try which can add a nice creamy note is some cream cheese or boursin (preferrably boursin).

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Kristen, I would have eaten it!

One of my favorite additions is sage. :wub:

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Kristen, I would have eaten it!

One of my favorite additions is sage. :wub:

Back away from the pipe and stop skimming.

That was 'salt', not 'sage'.


...I thought I had an appetite for destruction but all I wanted was a club sandwich.

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sorry, must have misunderstood.

...yipe, yipe, yipe...


...I thought I had an appetite for destruction but all I wanted was a club sandwich.

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Or a touch of turmeric or an atom of annatto, which (the second, anyway) are what is used to color cheese "naturally."

Creaton, with all due respect, I disagree. A flour-based roux need not be gritty -- in fact, mine never have been. A bit lumpy, perhaps, but that's why god invented strainers. If one is making a meatless bechamel (Escoffier #25), it's flour and clarified butter for a white roux (Escoffier #15) plus milk, onion sweated in butter, thyme, pepper, nutmeg, and salt. There is no place in bechamel for rice flour, corn starch, or any other starch.

However, I do agree that cheap cheese can work very well here. The main concern is not to cook the cheese; just let it melt in the warm sauce. I grew up on mac and cheese made with Velveeta, and it was indeed a velvety delight. :biggrin: Also, the addition of cream cheese works very, very well -- I always add it if I have it; and I use a combination of cheeses, whatever's on hand (excluding any blue-veined cheese; too strong and salty). Cabot Hunter's cheddar, asiago, kashkaval -- whatever. Anything to make up for the blandness of the macaroni and the bechamel.

BTW: I've heard that some people believe there should be NO white sauce of any kind: literally, just macaroni, and cheese, mixed and baked. Does anyone do it that way? If so, are there cheeses to use that are better than others?

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I do a milk roux mixture over macaroni, with shredded cheese layered through.

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BTW: I've heard that some people believe there should be NO white sauce of any kind: literally, just macaroni, and cheese, mixed and baked.  Does anyone do it that way?  If so, are there cheeses to use that are better than others?

I think bechamel-based cheese sauce is nowhere as good for mac & cheese as sauce based on egg and evaporated milk -- wonderfully silky-smooth and creamy -- which one has to be careful not to overheat, or risk curdling. See John Thorne's recipe in _Simple Cooking_. I use a thermometer and stop cooking at 145 degrees F -- perfect every time. Once you try it, you may never go back to white sauce again.

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BTW: I've heard that some people believe there should be NO white sauce of any kind: literally, just macaroni, and cheese, mixed and baked.  Does anyone do it that way?  If so, are there cheeses to use that are better than others?

Well, ever since I read John Thorne's recipe and then tried the Cooks Illustrated stovetop version of it, I've never gone back to bechamel for my mac and cheese. Basically, you mix up evaporated milk and eggs, plus your seasonings (mustard, cayenne, etc.) and shred your cheese. When the macaroni is cooked, toss it with some butter. Then over very low heat, add the milk-egg mixture and the cheese (I've come to love a combination of monterey jack for the smooth melting quality and aged gouda for the flavor). Stir until the sauce is thickened. This works great but can't be reheated without turning a bit gritty. Still, it's so much silkier and cheesier than a bechamel based sauce that I don't mind not having leftovers. Plus it's so fast, it only takes about five extra minutes after the macaroni is cooked. The drawback is that you don't get the crispy topping, although I imagine you could pour it into a heated au gratin pan, top it with breadcrumbs and run it under the broiler without it getting grainy.

Oh -- and something I learned from Shirley Corriher is that a bit of acid will keep cooked cheese from getting stringy, so I always add a bit of white wine or vermouth to any cheese sauce I make.

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Well, ever since I read John Thorne's recipe and then tried the Cooks Illustrated stovetop version of it, I've never gone back to bechamel for my mac and cheese. Basically, you mix up evaporated milk and eggs, plus your seasonings (mustard, cayenne, etc.) and shred your cheese. When the macaroni is cooked, toss it with some butter. Then over very low heat, add the milk-egg mixture and the cheese (I've come to love a combination of monterey jack for the smooth melting quality and aged gouda for the flavor). Stir until the sauce is thickened. This works great  but can't be reheated without turning a bit gritty. Still, it's so much silkier and cheesier than a bechamel based sauce that I don't mind not having leftovers. Plus it's so fast, it only takes about five extra minutes after the macaroni is cooked. The drawback is that you don't get the crispy topping, although I imagine you could pour it into a heated au gratin pan, top it with breadcrumbs and run it under the broiler without it getting grainy.

Oh, but you can indeed reheat and enjoy leftovers without grittiness. The recipe I use is essentially the Cook's Illustrated stovetop version. To reheat, microwave on the lowest power (10 percent of full power), stirring periodically to distribute heat. Once the mac and cheese warms up a little, the power can be increased to 20 percent or 30 percent to speed things up. This method of reheating does take a long time, but it avoids curdling the sauce and maintains its silky-creamy consistency. Reheating on the stovetop hardly ever works because the heat is too concentrated at the bottom and sides of the pan while the mac and cheese is still too cold and firm to stir around without tearing the noodles.

And, as JAZ says, you can indeed get a crusty topping by sprinkling grated cheese and/or buttered bread crumbs and broiling for a few minutes. A short broiling period does not curdle the sauce at all. I've pushed the limits to see how much broiling this dish can take, and I can broil it long enough to get the cheese bubbling and golden-brown.


Edited by browniebaker (log)

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And, as JAZ says, you can indeed get a crusty topping by sprinkling grated cheese and/or buttered bread crumbs and broiling for a few minutes. A short broiling period does not curdle the sauce at all. I've pushed the limits to see how much broiling this dish can take, and I can broil it long enough to get the cheese bubbling and golden-brown.

Hmmm, interesting. I have the Cook's stove-top version, but really wanted the mix of creamy and crunchy provided by the baked, roux-based version. It didn't occur to me to hedge my bets with the stovetop style & just broil it for a moment or two.

Back to the drawing board.

Chad


Chad Ward

An Edge in the Kitchen

William Morrow Cookbooks

www.chadwrites.com

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My niece is a huge fan of macaroni and cheese so I've been trying to find a recipe that she likes. Her favorite, so far, has been Patti LaBelle's Over the Rainbow Macaroni and Cheese. It's a heart attack in a casserole dish. It's made with five different cheeses, including Velveeta, as well as half & half. I recommend doubling the recipe but not the macaroni...just use 1.5 times the required amount of macaroni which will make it saucier.

FoodNetwork has some mac & cheese recipes in their archives. I liked their Smoked salmon, mac & cheese, though it wasn't "saucey" enough for me (and my niece didn't like it at all).

Chad, have you tried the fry-it-the-next-day method yet? Let us know how that turns out.


 

“Peter: Oh my god, Brian, there's a message in my Alphabits. It says, 'Oooooo.'

Brian: Peter, those are Cheerios.”

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Tim Oliver

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I always use Alton Brown's quick stove top recipe which uses egg and evaporated milk. It's great!! I got it off the Food network sight.

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Mac and cheese is my favourite comfort food. I actually made it tonight, what with all the fire activity, it was required. A white sauce, with onion and cheddar and pasta. Done. Spice = salt and pepper. Comfort food is often best simple and comfortable. :smile:

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