Macaroni and cheese is a staple in our house and, like most staples, we tend to stick to the same recipe time and again. Betty Crocker’s macaroni and cheese has treated Mark and I very well over the years. However, we both know that it could be better. So for this week’s new recipe, I decided to try an alternative version of macaroni and cheese.
Cook’s Illustrated’s The Best New Recipe claims to be the standard bearer for offering “foolproof” versions of “timeless” recipes, making it an obvious rival for Betty Crocker. A quick glance at the recipe and Mark and I were intrigued. Their diagram offered a Goldilocks approach to macaroni and cheese:
We both agreed that Betty often leaves us feeling a combination of oily, separated and clumpy. Rich and cloying certainly had its appeal.
Upon closer study, I found two main differences between the old and new recipes that would set the battle stage. The first was in the quantities of milk and cheese. While Betty Crocker calls for 8 ounces of cheese and 2 cups of milk, Cook’s Illustrated requires a whopping 16 ounces of cheese and 5 cups of milk. Double the dairy! Given that Mark and I usually increase the cheese amount when making the Betty Crocker recipe, we found this ingredient list much more attractive.
The second difference was in the preparation. Betty Crocker boils the pasta while preparing the cheese bechamel, then combines the two in a casserole dish and bakes for 25 minutes. By contrast, Cooks Illustrated cooks the macaroni first and sets it aside; then prepares the cheese sauce; and then combines the two in a pot a cook for six minutes. And THEN pours it into a baking dish, sprinkles with bread crumbs and broils for 5 minutes. This was a problem. Technically, we have a broiler at the bottom of the oven. But the truth is, it burns everything (many a dinner has been charred in the past) – so we never use it.
The first part of the recipe was easy (although with 5 cups of milk, creating the bechamel took longer than I anticipated). When I went to combine the macaroni and cheese, I immediately noticed that there was way more cream in this version. Even with the pasta mixed in, it looked almost soupy – not exactly rich and cloying.
I wanted to follow the recipe as much as possible and sprinkled on the bread crumbs. I immediately realized this was not my best move. I knew they would not toast in the oven the way they would in the broiler. But too late.
After twenty minutes of baking, the dish looked…the same. Where was the bubbling cheese we get with Betty? We were beginning to have our doubts, but it was warm and we were starving.
Upon serving, I discovered a challenge that was unrelated to the recipe. Not everything looks fabulous in our new dinnerware; yellow macaroni in a yellow bowl looks more than a bit blah:
We each took a bite and paused to individually assess. It was creamier than Betty Crocker for sure, but the flavor wasn’t quite there. It was more milk “forward” than cheese, and we’re both cheese people. It was also much heavier; there would definitely be leftovers. It wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t the rich and cloying recipe we were expecting. Mark broke the silence by saying, “This tastes like Stouffers. That’s neither bad nor good. It just really does.” He was right. All of that work, and I had created frozen macaroni and cheese.
Two nights later we made leftovers and agreed that a few days in the fridge made it much less soupy and more enjoyable. The addition of hot dogs was also an improvement. The beef added a nice flavor and texture…as well as a little fleck of color in the unappealing yellow-on-yellow environment:
Nice try, Cook’s Illustrated. Betty still reigns supreme on this one – until we find a new macaroni and cheese competitor, that is.