The Secret to Making the Best Mac and Cheese EVER
The common thread among some of the most beloved mac and cheese recipes out there is a combination of at least two different types of cheese—and as many as four. The thinking behind the double (or triple, or quadruple) dose is based on the fact that different cheeses have different strengths. Some—such as Gruyère, Emmental and Comté—are known for their superior meltability. Others—think Parmesan, smoked Gouda and any kind of cheddar, whether white or orange, sharp or aged—have deep flavor. Play your cheeses right, and you'll end up with a dish that's silky, smooth and richly flavored.
Sue Conley, co-founder of Cowgirl Creamery, a company in California known for its artisan cheeses, models her mac on an Italian dish known as Quattro Formaggi ("four cheeses"), using Parmesan, Gorgonzola dolce, provolone and fontina. This quartet makes for a dish that's got some kick to it, but still oozes with familiar comfort. In general, Conley recommends grating two, three or four cheeses together using at least one from each of the following categories: a good melting cheese (e.g., Gruyère, provolone), a tangy cheese (cheddar, cantal) and a soft cheese (Tallegio, Caerphilly). Conley says she and Cowgirl co-founder Peggy Smith also always put a little blue (such as Gorgonzola or Roquefort) in their mac and cheese; they like its pleasant bite. And just a note of a caution if you're using a really robust-tasting cheese, says Conley: "Remember: If the cheese is a strong one, reduce the proportion so one cheese doesn't dominate."
If a mix of the right cheeses accounts for 90 percent of an incredible mac and cheese, the other 10 percent is made up of a few other important factors. For the mac, the best shapes are medium-sized ones that hold sauce well, such as penne, elbows, mezze rigatoni or shells. The big "don't" here is to not overcook the pasta when boiling it (drain it just before it's al dente), since it will continue to cook once you've added it to the cheese and bake it. And a little finishing crunch is always welcome; Conley and Smith mix Parmesan with bread crumbs to sprinkle on top before baking.
As to why the dish isn't actually called "mac and cheeses," well, you've got us there.