This is the recipe for macaroni and cheese. It is the only recipe there is for macaroni and cheese. Here is what goes into it:
It does also include butter and milk. Think of them as more cheese.
"But I make a lovely macaroni and cheese already," you say, "with a rich bechamel sauce, and I-" Shut up, you. Put a sock in it. There are many, many fine and delicious dishes that include some kind of macaroni and some kind of cheese, along with other things. They are not macaroni and cheese. They are other things.
Nor are we talking here about that cafeteria stuff, the thick yellow cheese soup or cheese gravy, with macaroni floating in it. That is trash food. It is a lot of extra work to make something just like what you would make with bright orange powder from a box. Go ahead and eat it sometimes, but don't ask how to cook it.
To make macaroni and cheese, using macaroni and cheese, you start with one pound of elbow macaroni. "I really like to use whole-wheat fusilli," you say, "because they-" Knock it off. Elbow macaroni. If you forgot to buy elbows, you can use some other shape, but it won't be as effective.
Fill a big two-handled metal pot most of the way with water, salt the water, and put it on the stove to boil. Heat your oven. About 350 degrees.
Now if you're the kind of person who likes orderly preparations, grate your cheese. Or if you like procrastination followed by frantic haste, go do something else and wait to grate the cheese till the macaroni is in the water.
For cheese, you should have three half-pound blocks of cheddar. Do not get raw-milk cheddar from heirloom cattle. Do not use other cheeses. "Why, I have found that my macaroni and cheese achieves the perfect balance if I put in two parts of Gruyere, one part Talegg-" No. Go rub some fig paste on your face and cook up a fondue, cheese striver. Store-brand cheddar works swell. Land O'Lakes if it's on sale. Nor should you load up on Pine-Splittingly Fierce Extra-Extra Ouchy Sharp. At least one of your half-pound blocks should be no more than medium-sharp. You can get frisky with one or two of the others, but you need a foundation of mild cheddar.
There is nothing to be gained by using white cheese instead of yellow.
Grate two of your half-pound blocks, including the mildest one, completely. Look at the big pile of cheese you have now. Unwrap the third block, look at it, grate a little off the end, and think about how far you want to go. There are no wrong answers here. Relax your mind and listen to what the cheese is telling you.
When the water is at a full rolling boil, cook the macaroni. Do not overcook it, just because you are making American food. Macaroni is half the dish here, and it should be treated with respect. Al dente.
Drain the macaroni. Mix in several good-sized lumps of butter while the macaroni sits in the colander. Moving quickly and efficiently, take a damp paper towel and wipe the salt and starch from the just-emptied, still-hot pot. Don't be too fussy. Dry it off, chuck in a lump of butter, and rub that around to grease the inside of the pot. Dump the drained and buttered macaroni back into the buttered pot.
Now take the grated cheese, a handful or two at a time, and stir it in with the macaroni. Scrape the accumulated melting cheese off your stirring implement every now and then. Keep adding cheese till you've used 2/3 of the pile. Consider the un-grated portion of your third and final block of cheese. Maybe you are tired of grating. Maybe you suspect there's not quite enough cheese. Make the choice that suits you best.
"If you mix in some chopped ham, it will give it a real-" You aren't getting it, are you? No ham. No eggs. No bacon. This is not carbonara. I love carbonara! Maybe we will discuss carbonara sometime. No nutmeg, no lamb. This is not pasticcio. I adore pasticcio. No tomatoes. This is not lasagna, Garfield. This is macaroni and cheese.
Absolutely no fucking shaved truffles.
Now take the rest of your cheese and spread it over the top in a nice solid layer. "Bread crumbs are great for extra cr-OUCH!" Yes, I just drove a meat fork through your hand. Bread crumbs do not go on top of macaroni and cheese. You know what bread crumbs are good for? Putting inside a meatloaf. A meatloaf is a loaf that contains many other things besides meat. But macaroni and cheese consists of macaroni and cheese.
Finally, get out a jug of milk. Whole milk, from the udder of a cow, by way of a supermarket. Pour a big slug of milk over the macaroni and the cheese. How much? Tip the pot from side to side. The milk should just peep into view, down there at the edge of the macaroni.
Put it in the oven. Maybe it will take 40 minutes. The area around your kitchen will start to smell like macaroni and cheese. Pull the pot out and tip it from side to side again. The important cooking is done when no more milk is flowing down there.
Look at the top. It should be crispy with some tawny patches, depending on how your oven behaves. If you are in China and are using a countertop oven that's basically a double-sized toaster oven and has a quarter-inch of clearance between the element and the pot, the top will have gotten pretty awesome. If your oven hasn't quite delivered enough direct heat, feel free to give it a shot under the broiler for a few minutes for a little oomph.
When the baking is good and done, create a diversion. The people around you will have been smelling macaroni and cheese for a while, and they will be feeling entitled, but they must not eat it now. Draw their attention away-music? Cocktails? Fireworks?-while you take the golden dish out of the oven and put it aside for 10 minutes to set up. Cook a vegetable or something. Maybe a salad.
Finally, put the pot itself on the table, preferably on top of something heatproof. Scoop out some macaroni and cheese. The milk, you may notice, has yielded to the rigorous logic of the dish and become more cheese all on its own. Make sure everybody gets some crust.
Offer around a pepper grinder. Freshly ground black pepper goes great with macaroni and cheese.
Tom Scocca also makes a mean scrapple.