It may be that in the heat of the summer you are not thinking about macaroni and cheese, but I am. As the summer winds down for me, I have been using the last days of vacation to work on cooking, recipes, canning, fresh produce and what you can do with it, all of that.
Which brings me to macaroni and cheese. This iconic dish, this ultimate comfort food, is something that gets made made in most American households throughout the year, probably even in the summer, but most certainly in the colder months. There's probably a family recipe or a favorite recipe or Velveeta. My family has been in all of those camps, depending on the age of my children, the Velvetta version being the most reliable, the most consistently satisfying from their perspective.
But now the children are grown and out of the house and Mac 'n cheese still feels like a viable dinner option on a meatless Monday. So when I started making it, I re-examined it. Macaroni and cheese is one of those dishes that I make without a recipe. After all, it is little more than cooked pasta ( the shape is your choice) and a bechamel sauce with cheese(s) added to it. If you want, you can put a topping on it. If you want, you can bake it.
In my latest incarnation of the dish, I learned three things, insights I should or did already know but didn't put into practice consistently. But I did this time, and now I am calling them "must do"'s:
1. Most fully-homemade recipes are built upon the butter, flour, and milk sauce as a base. Called bechamel or white sauce, this basic sauce of French cooking combines fat and flour in a roux to which liquid is then added to create a thick(er) sauce. In most macaroni and cheese recipes, once the butter and flour are combined, you pour in the milk and go from there. What I discovered, not surprisingly, is that if you can hold off, can let the roux get to "blonde" or light brown, you add a lot of flavor. There is no rush to add the milk. Let the flavor build.
2. And this is the big one--never, never, ever bake your macaroni and cheese, that is unless you like it dry and curdled, all moisture from the sauce sucked into the pasta. Me, I like smooth, creamy mac 'n cheese, a little soupy perhaps, certainly wet. The cheese is part of the sauce; if there is no sauce because it has been evaporated or assimilated, then that is not mac 'n cheese to me. Many recipes out there are built around a beautiful sauce which, when it is baked, reduces and disappears. Don't ever bake your mac. It is an absolute to be followed. And if you do follow it, then even your leftovers will be creamy.
3. Put a topping on it. By all means, put your mac 'n cheese under a broiler where its topping can come together. Then you have the chance for crispy and crunchy on top but still smooth and creamy underneath. I ran across a recipe during the last couple of weeks which had tomatoes in it, so I thought, why not put those tomatoes in the crust? Which is why I sliced some tomatoes and dried them out in the oven, cooled them, and then ground them in a food processor with bread crumbs (I used crackers) and Parmesan cheese. Trust me, a crunchy crust is a great counterpoint to the soft, cheesy noodles underneath. You put the hot pasta and cheese sauce under the crumb crust and broil it and you have something special. Maybe your crust has onions or olives or red peppers, I don't know.
Mac 'n Cheese is a standard dish, but it is also a special one that deserves to stand out and to get a "Wow" from the people who are eating it. And that means that you have to pay attention to how it is made.
One of the "upgrades" I rely on is having a variety of cheeses in the refrigerator to draw from. My last version used cheddar, a Russian cheese, a touch of an assertive blue cheese, and the Mexican version of Parmesan (for the crust). A variety of cheese will give your casserole a complex flavor, a this-particular-version-may-never-happen-again kind of vibe.
It's worth it to revisit the meals that get made several times a year to see how they could be made better. I hope I have given you at least three ideas for how to do that.