I had the Perfect Mac and Cheese this past Monday night.*
*Or, rather, I should say that it’s the most perfect mac and cheese I’ve been served on this earth so far, and I can’t get it out of my head.
I consider M&C to be a staple dish: as in, I eat it probably too frequently. If it’s offered as a side, it’s like my brain and body have no choice but to pick it, as if it’s programmed into my whole being to ask for mac and cheese without even consciously realizing it, and if it’s listed on the entrees, I’m settled on it and signed, sealed, and delivered in cheesy goodness before the waiter even takes my drink order. I judge a restaurant pretty hardcore based on their mac klout, as if to say that if it’s not a mac that deserves to be served, why advertise it? The years that we get to spend eating are short- why waste our time on chalky, flavorless, sad imitations?
Anyway, back to the Perfect Mac and Cheese from Monday. Seriously, I tried to consume it as slowly as possible to savor it, but the way the flavors sang so perfectly together made me nearly shovel it in my mouth as I closed my eyes– in a real restaurant, in front of real people, in public– because the sensation of cheddar on noodles was just that good. I had a moment. I mean, I had a moment with each bite and I’m only slightly ashamed to share that when it was over and my cheese coma had somewhat subsided, I scraped my fork against the dish to get the last of the sauce. This mac and cheese spoke to me in my innermost being, letting me know that the world was a place full of possibilities, that I haven’t used up all chances yet on other sub-par foods, and that there are still surprises on menus and just around your next corner of a finely-decorated table for 2.
What makes a mac and cheese so perfect? I wish I could tell you in a few words– okay, well actually, I don’t. I’ve tried to narrow it down to a few points that make this particular dish impeccable in my mind, and bringing in both science and emotion, I’m happy to share my heavily-researched findings.
Without further adieu, the Perfect Mac And Cheese:
- has a lot of salt. Sure, there are other spices in there, too, but a little brine is so important. Salt is what gently awakens your taste buds and lets them know that they’re ARRIVED at an addictive place and should stick around. Ideally, the pasta should be boiled in heavily salted water and the whole beautiful serving should be salted gently as it is assembled gorgeously.
- has more than one kind of cheese!!! SERIOUSLY. Sure, you can argue that it’s “Mac And Cheese” and not “Mac And Cheeses” but I find that if we’re celebrating cheese by putting it in the title of the dish, you should do just that. Heck, throw a cheese party! Invite a really rich one, a really salty one, and a really creamy one to this party and let them all choreograph a dance to “Return of the Mac(k)” and get dowwwwwwn and get to know each other and get melty and become stronger together. This is a supergroup of cheeses and they’re going on tour and they’re coming to your city to bring the glorious gooey WARMTH.
- has the decency to use a good noodle. Sure, M&C calls for a certain softness of noodles (they’re sensitive) but they shouldn’t be absolute mush. Give the pasta element the littlest amount of al dente. I might upset some purists, (although, if I’m not going to upset some m&c purists, what’s the point in blogging about mac and cheese, right?) but I think it’s perfectly acceptable to stray outside the traditional macaroni shape and go with something that catches the sauce in little noodley vessels; aka, go with shells! Try out campanelle! Say yes to bowtie! Reach for cavatappi! We’ve all had elbows- be the change!
- has seen the inside of an oven. Listen, I get that baking your mac and cheese delays the gratification of eating it straight from the stovetop, but there is something so magically confusing about a decadently creamy Mac that has a little broil on it. It’s like a marriage of soft and crunchy that works perfectly, which brings me to my next point:
- has BREADCRUMBS!!!! Okay, okay, to be honest, they don’t have to be atop your mac and cheese but if you are already subjecting your body to consuming what we as a society have decided is “not healthy” (ie, cheesy carbs, ie CHARBS) at an alarmingly large rate, why not add even more carbs on top and treat yourself to a crisp and crumbly topping that deepens the salt factor and also the texture and also maybe the cheese in general if you add parmesan to your breadcrumbs and also the golden brown perfection that brings a peace to my soul just thinking about it. Breadcrumbs are sneaky: you don’t reach for them right away when cooking, but once you’ve indulged, there’s no going back and you will dream of adding them to nearly everything, but especially Perfect M&C.
- has never tried to parallel park somewhere that it knows it can’t fit. Perfect Mac and Cheese isn’t trying to impress you so hard that it’s going to try and take the small spot and then get embarrassed and flustered when it can’t turn the wheel right and other cars around it are getting annoyed and honking, making the situation worse and eventually it just gives up and drives away, cursing under its gruyere breath.
- has never once made fun of you for going to bed at 8 PM because the day-to-day gets overwhelming and your pillow has been there all along, waiting for you since you left it this morning. Perfect Mac and Cheese will make you Sleepytime Tea and tuck you in and turn up the volume on your white noise app that helps you reach the appropriate REM cycles.
- would never abandon you at a social event when it said it was just going to be gone for a second but it’s clearly going to be longer than a second. Perfect Mac and Cheese would understand that you don’t know anyone else there and that though you would try to make conversation by asking if anyone remembers the Animorphs book series, it would ultimately fail and Perfect Mac and Cheese would instead introduce you to their acquaintances or stay closeby, maybe holding your needy arm with its noodle arm(s).
- would tell you the honest, hard truth and therefore would never let you leave the house in a poorly-fitted pencil skirt that you will immediately regret and untag so many photos of yourself in later.
- does not try and take the aux cord when you have decided on a pre-established playlist that maybe you built exactly for this moment. The Perfect Mac and Cheese understands that it’s okay to have one for every occasion, even if they are obsessively labeled “Driving To The Airport” or “Songs For When It Rains” or ” Trying To Act Casual While Waiting For The Food Delivery Person To Arrive”.
- has never just casually used your Netflix or HBO GO accounts for months without at least informing you, therefore not secretly judging how many ABC Family Original Movies seem to be on the “Recently Watched” tab.
- does not find joy in arguing angry rants in Facebook comments. Perfect Mac and Cheese believes in face-to-face real conversation with heart behind it and also realizes that debating politics with strangers on the internet is the WORRRRST.
- probably already has a girlfriend.
- wait, what?
- can be eaten with a fork or a spoon. Let’s be real, utensils for M&C is a hot-button issue (to whom, I’m actually unsure, but I am sure someone cares) and the consistency of this casserole should be bound together enough that you can enjoy it with a fork or spoon, or spork, or really even with whatever piece of silverware that you can find by the dim light of the fridge at night when your roommates are already asleep and you are hunched over, snacking on noodles and cheese cold from to-go container because what are leftovers, really, when the Perfect Mac and Cheese is so perfect that you can’t even leave it alone until the next day because you are powerless, fatally bound to its marvelously addicting ways.
- is perfect because it exists simply to make you happy and fill you with joy, both literally, and calorically, and maybe, when everything in your life suddenly gets complicated, it’s okay to look forward to the simple (yet difficult to cook perfectly) things.