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What's the Best Mac and Cheese Cheese?

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Photograph from jslander on Flickr

The humble mac and cheese—that staple of American wholesomeness—is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance as of late. From authoritative recipes to a survey of the 20 best places to get mac and cheese in New York City, to a segment on Good Morning America featuring cheese, bacon, garlic, noodles, Emeril Lagasse, and a well-meaning North Carolinian, everything's coming up cheesy noodles in 2008.

Then again, did the dish ever go out of style? As has been mentioned here before, the New York Times stirred up controversy two years ago by publishing a widely popular recipe that flagrantly snubbed béchamel lovers everywhere. Still, a fundamental question goes unanswered: what are the best cheeses to use for this classic dish?

The restaurant S'mac in New York skirts the issue by offering no fewer than ten varieties. There's the Cajun for instance, which is made with cheddar and pepper jack cheeses, andouille sausage, green pepper, onions, celery, garlic, and Cajun seasoning. Or take the La Mancha, made with Spanish manchego along with fennel and onions.

That Times piece quotes Rob Kaufelt from Murray's, who recommends a "30-50-20 blend of Swiss Gruyère, young Irish cheddar, and Parmigiano-Reggiano." I myself would probably switch the ratios of the Gruyère and cheddar, since I prefer the sweet nuttiness of the former to the tangy bite of the latter. You probably also don't specifically need an Irish cheddar; I'm sure any good cheddar would do. In fact, most good recipes I see combine these three cheeses in roughly this ratio.

But what about American (processed) cheese? I much prefer the depth of flavor offered by the fancier choices above, but no discussion of mac and cheese would be complete without a tip of the hat to Velveeta and her cousins. Because these cheeses contain added emulsifiers, any recipe that uses them will attain a heavenly creaminess without requiring a béchamel.

So what about you? What's your favorite cheese to use in a mac and cheese? And as a side question: Bacon or no?

Recipes

Martha Stewart's Three-Cheese Mac and Cheese
Ina Garten's Mac and Cheese
Mark Bittman's Baked Vegetarian Mac and Cheese
Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Mac and Cheese

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