[124] Pioneer Woman’s Mac and Cheese

Cover of The Pioneer Woman Cooks by Ree Drummond

So. I made this a long time ago. Looks like about 10 months ago, to be exact. I had forgotten I’d made it. When I looked at the sidebar or “Upcoming Recipes”, I was just sure I’d have to let the “Macaroni and Cheese” go, because I didn’t have the foggiest notion where I’d gotten the recipe.

Then, my habit of photographing the cookbooks with the ingredients saved me. I found the photos of the “Macaroni and Cheese” and was saved. Saved, I tell you! I could report the recipe to you (and thus count it in my totals1). Hooray.

Of course, one ugly truth reared its head. I tried to shove the truth’s head back down, but it would not be denied. What was it? Neither Bill nor I could remember a damn thing about how this recipe tasted. Did we like it? Was it terrible? I guess it must have been very much in the middle of the road for us to have, seriously, no memory of eating it.

Interestingly, this coincided with a strong craving, on my part, for Kraft Dinner. It’s embarrassing, but it’s true. I grew up on Kraft Dinner, much of my life I refused to eat mac & cheese that was not Kraft Dinner. I’ve been wanting some for a couple of days, but I don’t keep it in the house. Mostly because I rarely want to eat it anymore. Also because when I DO want to eat it, well, I’ll eat a whole box in one sitting by myself. And that’s just obscene.

SO. We had an entry I was working on (and “working on” at that point meant “uploading photos for”) about macaroni and cheese. We had a woman with a craving for macaroni and cheese (or something like it). You think you see where this is going, don’t you?

Unless you know me really well, you don’t2. I, in fact, left the house and went to TWO convenience stores and paid a whopping $2.24 for some Kraft Dinner. What? The first one didn’t have any! It’s not like that was a sign to go home and eat something else, you know. A sign would be all the walking-distance stores failing to have any. Like that’ll ever happen.

Once I arrived home, Bill and I had a weird conversation about life & Christmas & such. This rolled into my mentioning how I was working on this entry, and how I didn’t really remember much about what it tasted like. This, quite logically and obviously, resulted in Bill suggesting we put the Kraft Dinner on the shelf and go buy a half pound of cheese and make PW’s recipe instead. After some some debate and a couple of rounds of Munchkin (and, honestly, some baking and eating of PW’s no knead rolls), that’s what we decided to do.

h2. Ingredients

Note: We made a half-batch the second time around. Ingredients amounts reflect this, as ranch amounts are obscene for normal humans.

* 2 c dry macaroni (The first time we used whole wheat, the second time we used regular. Use regular.)
* 1 egg, beaten (The only thing that couldn’t be easily halved.)

* 2 tbsp buttter

* 1/8 c all-purpose flour

* 1 1/4 c milk (She calls for whole, which we never have in the house. We use 2% and it’s fine.)

* 1 heaping tsp dry mustard

* 1/2 lb cheese, grated & 1/4 c reserved (Cheddar is her norm, and what we used at least once, but whatever works.)

* 1/4 tsp salt (At least.)

* 1/4 tsp seasoned salt (See above.)

* 1/2 tsp ground black pepper. (On her website, she says she prefers pre-ground for this application. Whatever.)

h2. Instructions

Make macaroni, but only cook it for about half the time the package calls for. Maybe less, depending on how firm you like your pasta, generally. Drain it, then, in a fit of Bill-like genius, run it under cold water to stop it’s cooking and minimize the pasta sticking together. Or, in a fit of Tasha-like not so genius, don’t do that.

Preheat the oven to 350F and grease/butter/cooking spray/somehow prepare a baking dish. 9″ x 9″ works well for a half-batch. 9″ x 13″ is good for a full batch.

Melt the butter in a decent sized pot. For a batch this size (half her normal size), a 3 quart pan works pretty well. Slowly whisk in the flour (slow to avoid lumps). Cook for about 5 minutes over medium-low heat, whisking like you’ve never whisked before. Loose your patience with this, and occasionally instead distract yourself by stirring the cooked pasta to break up chunks. Once the roux is made and cooked, whisk in the milk and mustard. Cook that mix over fairly low heat until it’s very thickened, maybe five minutes. Maybe you set your timer for five minutes and three minutes in decide your heat’s a little too low and bump it a notch.

Once the sauce is thick and gooey and vaguely yummy-looking, use about 2 tbsp of it to temper your eggs, then whisk the tempered eggs into the milk mixture. Once that’s smooth, dump in the majority of the cheese and stir until it’s melted. Obsess over it’s relative smoothness and wonder if it has to be perfectly smooth. Obsess until it’s basically smooth, then dump the salts and pepper in and whisk some more. Taste, and add more salt if you think you need to. Once that seems nicely mixed, dump in the cooked pasta and mix well.

Pour the pasta/cheese mix into your baking pan, then sprinkle the reserved cheese on top. Pop in the oven and bake for 20 – 25 minutes, or until bubbly and (theoretically) golden on top.

h2. Cooking and Consumption Notes

h3. Cooking

This recipe somehow manages to be fairly simple, but also a big ol’ pain in the patukus all at once. My single biggest suggestion, then, is to have everything prepped and ready to go. Have, as they say, your mise en place ready before you start. Don’t be like I was on the 27th of December and start melting the butter and whisking in the flour only realize that the cheese isn’t grated yet.

Seriously. I got everything together and all set up pretty for the camera, and then started cooking. Normally I’m pretty good about noticing, say, “I haven’t yet cracked the egg” or “Hey, whose cheese is still in plastic wrap and block form?” Not tonight.

Anyway, this recipe is otherwise dead-simple. It’s mostly stirring with some making sure you don’t burn anything and seeing that sauce thicken up, but if you can make Kraft Dinner, you can make this. Because, seriously, it’s mostly stirring. Just get everything ready ahead of time, and set out in bowls (those silicone prep cups can be found at World Market, as can the glass ones like the beaten egg is in for under $1/cup3) and within a quick grab.

And, bear in mind, “quick grab” doesn’t have to be “right next to the stove” if that doesn’t work for you. I do, technically, have space there in my kitchen, but that’s where I tend to set the dirty dishes, as it’s a sliver of counter next to the sink. My mise en place, when I remember to have one, sits on a counter directly behind me. This is close enough that it works fine, and gives me plenty of space for plenty of “stuff”.

Grab, whisk, grab, whisk. Simple.

h3. Consumption

Well, it’s no Kraft Dinner, but it’s decent.

Okay, now that that poor joke is out of my system…

This never gets the gorgeous crust that hers does. It makes me sad. Next time, I’m adding breadcrumbs to the reserved cheese. And possibly reserving more cheese.

We used, this second time around, a 2 year aged cheddar. I thought it was going to be too strong for me, since I’m still only getting used to sharp and strong cheeses, but the milk and roux really toned down the cheese. In fact, it became more bland than I expected. I would, in the future, use an even sharper cheese. And possibly more mustard powder.

Bill and I both took our first bite and agreed that it was a bit gritty. In fact, upon that first bite, we both remembered that had been our major impression from last time too. Tasty, but gritty. This was less gritty than we remembered the February mac & cheese being, but still gritty.

All in all, it was pretty good. I’m not sure if I’m just incapable of making mac & cheese that isn’t Kraft Dinner, or if the recipe is actually just vaguely gritty. But, here, look at this photo. You can see the grit.

fn1. Wait, I don’t think we decided that. Shit. Maybe I’ve just committed to only counting recipes I can report about to you. I’m so screwed.

fn2. Ha! What lies. That was obvious to anyone who is reading this entry, isn’t it?

fn3. I think you can get the glass ones for even cheaper at a restaurant supply store. I know someone I was just talking to got them for about $0.50/cup, when I paid $0.79/cup. Trust me, at either price, they are SUPER handy. I now own about a dozen, and use them almost daily. The silicone ones I use less often, but I used them a lot until I got the glass ones. The glass ones are nice because they are bigger and heavier, but still a nice, small size.