Macaroni and cheese is one of my husband's favorite meals, but I never feel that I make "great" macaroni and cheese - despite making the sauce from scratch and spending the time to grate my cheese. But still - it's always hovered at the "good" level. Until now.
Somewhere on the web, I read a review of a book titled "Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work" by Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot (Clarkson Potter, Publisher, 2010), and got myself a copy. The book is a bit like Alton Brown on steroids - scientific facts about foods - why they cook the way they cook, their reaction to other foods, etc. The cover says the authors "look at everyday ingredients and techniques in new ways".
The pasta section caught my attention with an idea I had never heard of - Pre-soaking your dried (boxed) pasta in cold water!? That's right - take your big ol' box of Barilla pasta and soak it in cold water before using it as an ingredient in your favorite dish. The reason? Soaking it in water softens it and removes some of the starchy coating which lends itself to causing pasta to stick together. It also cuts back dramatically on a recipe's cooking time. The authors advise that you can pre-soak your pasta in advance, and store it in a ziploc bag in the refrigerator until needed.
The pre-soaked pasta is softer, but not cooked compeltely. I'd call it pre-Al Dente stage. So it does need to be cooked more after the pre-soaking.
And thus the new way to make macaroni and cheese. With the pre-soaked pasta drained but still pre-al dente, you make your cheese sauce in a large pot, then put the not-quite-cooked macaroni in the cheese sauce to let it finish cooking and softening. So what is it doing while in the cheese sauce? Absorbing all that lucscious, wonderful cheesy flavor, of course! "Normal" cooked macaroni is simply coated with the cheese sauce, but the pre-soaked macaroni absorbs the cheese sauce and becomes an extension of all that good cheese flavor - without turning soft and mushy.
This recipe is actually quite fast and easy, I'm betting you will never make macaroni and cheese the old way again.
MACARONI AND CHEESE
1 lb. dried elbow macaroni
2 1/2 quarts water
8 tbsp UNsalted butter, plus more for the baking dish
12 oz can evaporated milk
3/4 tsp cayenne pepper
10 oz extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated
10 oz pepper Jack cheese, grated
2/3 cup course fresh bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated parmigiano cheese
3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
Put the macaroni in a large bowl and cover with water. Let the pasta soak for an hour, stirring occasionally; then drain it and use as follows. It will finish cooking in the sauce.
Turn the broiler on low. Butter a 3 quart baking dish.
Put the butter, evaporated milk, salt, and cayenne in a 3 quart pot over medium heat. When the butter is melted and the milk is just steaming, slowly stir in the cheddar and Jack cheeses, handful by handful, until they are both incorporated and evenly melted. When the sauce is made, stir in the pre-soaked macaroni and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. The pasta will absorb some sauce and the mixture will thicken slightly.
Pour the macaroni mixture into the prepared baking dish and spread it out evenly. In a small bowl, combine the bread crumbs, parmigiano cheese; sprinkle over the pasta. Drizzle with the melted butter. Put the pan on the middle oven rack, centered under the broiler, and broil the pasta for 5 minutes. When the topping is golden brown, remove the pasta from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.
If you try this recipe, I'd love to hear your reaction to the enhanced flavor of pre-soaking the pasta!