While exploring Pike Place Market in Seattle, we stopped by Beecher's Handmade Cheese shop. I'd heard of Beecher's and even tried some of their Flagship Cheddar locally from Central Market. It was the best cheddar I'd ever tasted — a much more dynamic and full-flavored cheddar than I'd ever had before. Beecher's makes their cheeses with no artificial preservatives, flavor enhancers, sweeteners, colors or hydrogenated oils. It's just pure goodness.
I'd seen Beecher's Kurt Dammeier on the Martha Stewart show making "the world's best mac and cheese." That's a mighty big claim. I grew up eating my grandmother's mac and cheese. She was an old-school Southern cook who spoiled me with buttermilk biscuits, chicken and dumplings and the mac and cheese by which I've measured all others. Hers was creamy and cheesey underneath with a thick, crusty layer of cheddar over the top. I've experimented for years with different down-home and gourmet recipes to try to find one I liked as much as hers. Beecher's recipe is the one. We sampled some in their store and I had to try making it myself when we got home.
My husband immediately declared it one of the best things he's ever tasted. I have to agree. The sauce is not just creamy and luscious, but the also the cheesiest I've ever had. The crust of Gruyere and cheddar on top replicates the crust I always loved from my grandmother's version. First, you make your sauce and cook your pasta. Then combine them in a casserole pan (individual little casseroles are handy here and avoid fighting over the serving spoon), sprinkle the top with more cheese, and then bake it in the oven. You can make your sauce and pasta and assemble and refrigerate it before baking. This will actually enhance the flavor. (Saveur magazine recently had an article about the chemical reactions that take place in mac and cheese and they recommended letting the flavors develop like this before baking. So keep that in mind, if it's more convenient. This also means your leftovers will rock.)
This is rich stuff. It has a little chipotle in it to give it just a touch of heat. It takes a lot of cheese. It's not a cheap dish. But it is one of the most satisfying ever. A special occasion, over-the-top splurge. This is the kind of dish that will get you marriage proposals, so don't make it for just anyone.
Cooking notes: Be sure to undercook the pasta by a few minutes — it will continue cooking in the oven and you don't want it to get too soft. I used a rigatoni pasta because I wanted something with a big enough center to capture the sauce. It was perfect. I also used 2% milk and it was still incredibly rich. Beecher's Jack cheese wasn't available locally, so I subbed the Central Market house Jack. But be sure to use Beecher's Flagship for the cheddar. It's what makes this dish transformative.
Beecher's Mac & Cheese
For the cheese sauce:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup flour
3 cups (2%) milk
14 ounces (3 1/2 cups) Beecher's Flagship cheddar, grated
2 ounces (1/2 cup) Jack cheese, grated
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon chipotle powder
1 clove garlic, minced
Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the garlic, and cook for a couple of minutes to soften the garlic. Add the flour and whisk together. Continue whisking while it cooks for about two minutes.
A little at a time, pour in your milk and continue whisking to incorporate. Then add a little more. Continue the whisking and adding until you've incorporated all of the milk. Keep whisking and cooking for about 10 minutes, until the sauce thickens.
Turn off the heat under the pan. Add the grated cheese, salt and chipotle. Whisk or stir until all of the cheese has melted. Refrigerate for later assembly or assemble into mac and cheese immediately (see below).
For mac and cheese:
6 ounces rigatoni pasta, slightly undercooked (by about 2-3 minutes) and rinsed in cold water, then drained
Beecher's cheese sauce (above)
1 ounce (1/4 cup) Beecher's Flagship cheddar, grated
1 ounce (1/4 cup) Gruyere cheese, grated
Spray one large or 6-8 small casserole pans with cooking spray.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine the warm cheese sauce and the (undercooked) pasta. Pour the pasta and sauce into your baking dish(es). Sprinkle the top with the cheddar and Gruyere.
Bake for about 20-30 minutes, until warmed through. Note: while mine was cooked through at this point, the top wasn't quite browned yet, so I turned on the broiler for the last two minutes of cooking. Be sure to watch over it and pull it out before it goes too far.
Let cool for about five minutes before serving, if you can stand it.
Mac and cheese is uaually considered a side dish, or in the South, a vegetable. And you can serve it on the side with something else, like roasted chicken or whatever. But no one will notice anything else on the table. Just know that. If you have kids, I'm sure you could use this as a bribe to get them to eat their green veggies first.
Adapted from Beecher's World's Greatest Mac & Cheese recipe on MarthaStewart.com.