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Bread And Butter: Homemade Mac & Cheese

Tawnya Gibson

In a recent segment, I mentioned that the one restaurant meal I’ve tried to recreate at home is a BBQ pork macaroni and cheese. I feel I need to state, here and now, the macaroni and cheese was not, in any way, homemade. It came from everyone’s favorite little box and the reason for that is very simple. I CANNOT make homemade macaroni and cheese. Not even a little.

I’ve tried. Several times. I’ve downloaded and printed various recipes, scoured books, and tried all of the tricks. None of them seem to work for me. My sauce never comes out even close to smooth, far away from thick. Grainy, clumpy, separated, and tasteless. It’s quite a feat, actually, to get the exact same results from many different recipes and variations of technique. If you think about it, actually, I might be gifted? Gifted in all of the wrong ways, at least where mac and cheese are concerned, sure, but gifted nonetheless! 

I had thought, at one point, that my main problem was not buying fancy cheese. But I have people assure me that creamy and thick can be achieved with a random stick of cheddar, so that theory went out the window. I had someone suggest that maybe my roux wasn’t a proper foundation. While, sure, I’ll entertain that possibility, I lean toward no simply because I make a mean roux for literally everything else. My milk gravy? A thing of beauty. So my foundation is solid. It’s actually when the cheese is added that everything goes completely wrong.

My favorite cheese is Colby longhorn, which is not a variety readily available in Northern Utah. So I dither about going between medium cheddar, Colby, and Colby Jack. Pepper Jack, too, if I want to try giving the dish a little twist. None of these options ended in what I would call a successful dish. I think the last time I tried, it WAS eaten, begrudgingly, by us all with second helpings and leftovers fighting over who could jump into the trash can first. It was not good. I don’t understand how a roux plus cheese could turn so very ugly. It was very much like trying to mix oil and water and come up with delicious cheese sauce. I’m not even certain the end product resembled anything close to what was promised!

During this very much misguided culinary attempt, I noticed that nearly every recipe I searched called for toasted bread crumbs on top. I can assure you that I’ve never had bread ON TOP of my mac and cheese before nor do I think the practice is a good idea in any way, shape, or form. Even my very favorite takeaways do not offer this addition, so I’m a little confused by it. Are we supposed to want croutons to add texture and crunch? If so, it was probably the right call to leave them off since my dish had plenty of texture with them. All on its own. Separated. Coddled? Curdled? I’m not sure. But the texture and crunch sans toasted bread crumbs was not supposed to be there, but magically showed up anyway. Again. Gifted. In all the wrong ways.

Another thing I noticed that varied wildly between all of the experts (I raise a serious eyebrow at that notion, but I may be bitter) was cooking time for the sauce. Two-minute sauce! A good sauce takes time! Thirty-minute mac and cheese! Cook for two minutes, rest and cook again! Dance a little in between stirs – it’s the magical secret only I’ll tell you about! Ok. So maybe I exaggerate. But is it really too much to ask for a unified set of instructions for something that should be very basic? Like cooking an egg. You won’t find a recipe for the thirty-minute egg and for good reason. So do we need a thirty-minute cheese sauce? I posit no. No, we do not. 

The final bit of quandary I found was the debate over to roux or not to roux. Nearly every recipe called for one. Until they didn’t and not only didn’t, absolutely went into diatribes why the roux camp is wrong and complicated and that’s where people are going all wrong! But if you remember, my roux game is strong. My foundation is solid. Well, not solid, solid, but solid. You know what I mean. Anyway, the anti-roux insist you simply need to melt your cheese and butter together and THEN add in your milk. Stir until creamy and add in a touch of flour. Wait. Add in what? So they aren’t so much anti-roux as in-poor-disguise-backward-roux. 

I will admit? Backward roux is definitely one method I have not tried.

So for now, making my favorite BBQ pork mac and cheese (I can nearly taste that fall-off-the-bone tender pork right now!) for a fast dinner without take-out comes about via a tall skinny box. Maybe one day I’ll suck it up and try again. Really, what’s the worst that could happen?