The Platonic Ideal of Macaroni and Cheese
For those nostalgic enough to look into them, old restaurant menus, like telescopes, can reveal distant worlds.
A Stouffer’s restaurant menu dated Friday, July 5, 1955, for instance, lists a macaroni and cheese dinner plate for a dollar, among other entrees like chicken fricassee, broiled whitefish and breaded pork steak with apple sauce. The mac and cheese came with a trio of sides: spinach soufflé, julienne carrots and a tossed green salad. If a drink was in order, one could wash all of that down with a claret cobbler, a cocktail of red wine, fresh fruit and sugar, or maybe with a Bamboo, which mixes sherry and vermouth — both for 55 cents.
This is the same Stouffer’s that has become best known for frozen dinners sold in a distinctive red box. The company began as a family business in the early 1900s, operating a small dairy stand before expanding into restaurants, hotels and freezer-aisle products. Vernon Bigelow Stouffer inherited the business and turned it into an American food empire.
Some may consider Stouffer’s a metonym for TV dinner. But from the French-bread pizza to the lasagna with meat sauce, Stouffer’s products are relics that also remain household staples decades later. The mac and cheese in particular has become what I consider the platonic ideal of that dish: a sauce of creamy, golden velvet on bouncy, perfectly cooked (arguably overcooked) noodles, the cheese still voluptuously smooth even after a long stint in the oven.
When Michelle Johnson (who goes by Micky), 42, was growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, her grandparents would heat up individual 12-ounce trays of Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese whenever she and her sister stayed over. It was “always baked in the oven until brown and bubbly on top, the edges blackened,” she recalled. “The crispy burnt bits were the best parts.”
For Ms. Johnson, the pasta alone was the meal. “We ate it right out of the plastic containers, no scooping it out onto plates or anything fancy like that,” she said. “Just the mac and cheese, maybe with Tab or 7Up to wash it down.”
There are many ways to arrive at a Stouffer’s-style macaroni and cheese in your own kitchen without having to stroll by the freezer aisle.
This recipe starts with a classic roux (a mixture of butter and flour), which becomes a béchamel when milk joins the party. The transition from béchamel to cheese sauce is a beautiful thing: It will seem as if it’s a lot of cheese at first, but that’s because it’s a lot of sauce. The sauce-to-pasta ratio here is really what makes Stouffer’s mac and cheese, well, Stouffer’s mac and cheese.
Recreating that creaminess was the biggest challenge. Overheating a cheese sauce, especially in the oven, can cause its emulsion to break, turning a velvety pasta into a grainy gunge. If it’s baked macaroni and cheese you’re after, not stovetop, then there’s little getting around this.
But there is one method that works. Paul Adams, the senior science research editor at Cook’s Illustrated, has written about the stabilizing powers of sodium citrate, an ingredient found in processed cheeses like Velveeta. “It’s fun to see it in action,” he said, “because it opens up a whole world of otherwise ineligible cheeses that you can melt smoothly into a sauce.” Though you could go out and buy sodium citrate, using a smidgen of Velveeta in your sauce does wonders for keeping it indelibly smooth and bound, like movie-theater nacho cheese.
In fact, as Mr. Adams points out, the chemical formula for sodium citrate even spells out “nacho”: Na₃C₆H₅O₇.
Recipe: Creamy Baked Macaroni and Cheese
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