Best Mac & Cheese EVER!

Over the years, since it's my kids' favorite food, I have searched high and low for the holy grail of mac & cheese recipes. To name a few, I tried versions from Joy of Cooking, Alton Brown, The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook, Commonsense Kitchen (we even visited the Moosse Cafe in Mendocino to try it) and a very good one from Relish magazine. I even strayed into the unconventional and dabbled with ethnic versions (think Greek Mac & Cheese) and recipes that included everything but the kitchen sink.

Being somewhat of a geek, I was hopeful Cook's Illustrated's 1997 stovetop version, with their exact, obsessive, scientific approach would uncover the secrets to the most incredible mac & cheese ever. It was good, but the sauce was too soupy and I wasn't enamored with using eggs and a can of evaporated milk in the recipe. Plus, call me a traditionalist, but I wanted my mac & cheese baked and served from a casserole dish.

Finally, I came upon Katie Brown's Zebra Mac & Cheese. The secret ingredient is.......wait for it.........cream cheese! Adding this smooths out the cheese sauce so it is exceptionally silky. I make a couple of deviations from her recipe which include: adding 1/2 teaspoon of dry mustard; using extra sharp yellow cheddar instead of just sharp, and getting rid of the chicken broth. I don't like the flavor of chicken in my mac & cheese. It should be dairy, dairy, dairy, all the way : )  In all other respects, this recipe is straightforward and very traditional.

So, even if you think you've got the best mac & cheese recipe, you really should give this one a try!

Best Mac & Cheese Ever
Adapted from Katie Brown Celebrates by Katie Brown
Serves 8-10

Prepare and have ready at hand:
1/2 cup (4 oz) cream cheese, cut up into 4 pieces
1 1/4 lb (20 oz) extra sharp yellow cheddar cheese, grated  (approx. 5 cups)
1/4 lb (4 oz) sharp white cheddar cheese, grated  (approx. 1 cup)

Cook according to package directions:
1 lb dried elbow pasta

Drain and put cooked pasta into a greased 9" x 13" or 3-qt baking dish.

While pasta is cooking, prepare cheese sauce. In a large saucepan, over medium heat, melt:
2 tablespoons butter

Add and cook for 2 minutes, stirring continuously with a whisk to prevent burning:
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

Slowly whisk in:
2 cups milk, whole or lowfat

Heat until milk begins to steam. Whisk in the 1/2 cup of cream cheese until smooth. It's ok if there are small bits of solid cream cheese; it will all melt completely when you mix the sauce with the hot cooked pasta.

Turn off the heat and add 4 cups of the yellow cheddar along with:
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Whisk until melted and smooth. Again, no worries if you have some unmelted cheddar as the sauce will be perfectly smooth after mixing with the hot pasta.

Pour the cheese sauce carefully over the pasta. Using a rubber spatula, carefully lift, fold and stir until thoroughly mixed. Top with the remaining 1 cup of yellow cheddar and 1 cup of white cheddar, alternating the two to create bands or stripes. Place baking dish under a broiler or in a warm oven (350°F works fine) until cheese is just melted. Serve hot.

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