Why It Works
- Cooking macaroni in a small volume of water concentrates the starch from the pasta, helping the cheese form a creamy emulsion.
- Similar recipes call for cooking pasta in milk, which can scorch. Cooking in water and adding evaporated milk toward the end fixes this problem.
- Evaporated milk contains protein micelles, which help keep an emulsified sauce smooth and creamy.
This macaroni and cheese—this pot of creamy, gooey, cheesy, glorious macaroni and cheese—was made with three ingredients in about 10 minutes. Seriously. That's one fewer ingredient than you need to add to the pot to make a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese.
Not only that, but all three ingredients are staples, with shelf lives of weeks or months, which means that a simple lunch is always on hand.
This idea came from working on my cacio e pepe recipe, the Roman dish with pasta, pecorino, and black pepper. In that recipe, I cook spaghetti in a small volume of water, using the starchy pasta water to emulsify the cheese into a creamy sauce. I wondered if the same thing would work for an American-style macaroni and cheese, using more cheese and cheddar in place of pecorino.
It didn't quite work the first time—the high proportion of cheese caused the sauce to break and turn greasy—but with a few tweaks, I nailed it.
The first key was to reduce the amount of water I was using to the bare minimum: I place the macaroni in a pot and add just enough cold water to cover it, then throw in a little pinch of salt and bring it all to a boil. So long as you stir while it cooks, the pasta cooks up perfectly al dente.
Why less water? Easy: more concentrated starch. As the pasta cooks, it sheds starch. You want that starch to stay in the pot, as it plays a crucial role in helping the sauce stay creamy and emulsified. Without it, the cheese turns tough and greasy.
The second big key was to use evaporated milk as the base liquid. Evaporated milk is a highly concentrated source of milk protein micelles—bundles of proteins that can act as powerful emulsifying agents—which help to keep the sauce creamy and smooth.
To make two servings, just think in sixes. All you've got to do is cook six ounces of dry pasta until the water is almost absorbed and the pasta is just shy of al dente (this takes about six minutes), then add six ounces of evaporated milk and six ounces of grated cheddar cheese (it also works fine with any good melting cheese, like Fontina, Gruyère, or Jack). Stir it all together until it's creamy and emulsified, and you're ready to eat. (If dinner gets slightly delayed for some reason, the sauce will thicken up, but you can thin it out again with a splash of water and some good stirring.)
Wasn't that easy?
Now, normally I do all my research on existing recipes before I start working on my own version. This time, I was so excited to get into the kitchen that I completely neglected to do so until afterward. Good thing I eventually did, too, because it turns out that there are quite a few similar recipes out there. Many call for cooking pasta directly in milk, a technique that works okay, but it can lead to scorching if you're not super careful with stirring. I prefer the evaporated-milk route because it ensures a clean pan with no burnt bits on the bottom.
Of course, it also turns out that Pillsbury has a recipe that's almost completely identical, save for a few differences (less cheese, more pasta, longer cook time). Looks like I've got more in common with the Doughboy than just an overly poke-able belly.
Yeah, I thought so.*
Luckily, six minutes is all you need for a complete ab workout, so give yourself a quarter of an hour and you can make dinner and then immediately work it off, with some time left over to drop your dishes in the dishwasher. Is this going to replace my Ultra-Gooey Stovetop Mac and Cheese as my favorite stovetop mac and cheese recipe? I don't think so, but as far as work-to-results ratios go, this new one is one of the best recipes around.**
*Okay, even I admit that sometimes Kraft mac and cheese is exactly what I want, especially if I make it the way my mom did, with an extra slice of American cheese melted into it.
** If you are willing to kick it up by a couple ingredients, try a good dash of hot sauce, some mustard powder, or a little knob of butter stirred in there as well. I won't consider it cheating.
6 ounces (170g) elbow macaroni
6 ounces (180ml) evaporated milk
6 ounces (170g) grated mild or medium cheddar cheese, or any good melting cheese, such as Fontina, Gruyère, or Jack
Place macaroni in a medium saucepan or skillet and add just enough cold water to cover. Add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently. Continue to cook, stirring, until water has been almost completely absorbed and macaroni is just shy of al dente, about 6 minutes.
Immediately add evaporated milk and bring to a boil. Add cheese. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring continuously, until cheese is melted and liquid has reduced to a creamy sauce, about 2 minutes longer. Season to taste with more salt and serve immediately.
If you are willing to kick the total ingredients up to more than three, try a good dash of hot sauce, some mustard powder, or a little knob of butter stirred in with the evaporated milk.