I started teaching my son (who I've affectionately nicknamed Sparky on the internet) a few tricks and recipes when he was seven; at the time my only objective was to raise a young man who could feed himself inexpensively and well by the time he's on his own. I found that the cooking project had many other benefits: we've used it to learn about history, geography, chemistry, but most importantly, math. Coming from a literary background, I forget how math-heavy the kitchen is - but his capacity came out at conferences, where my son's teacher pointed out that he's the "best measur-er in the classroom."
It was a bit difficult to get him interested, but I bribed him by saying he could choose which food he wanted to cook, and Mac and Cheese came to the top of the list. Yes, it's not exactly health food - but there are a lot of cooking fundamentals involved in this simple meal: how to cook dry pasta, how to make a roux, how to keep a cheese sauce from breaking. It turned out to be so wildly successful that we later entered a culinary competition and made a video of the process. (You'll note that the recipe in the video is somewhat improved over the everyday recipe below.)
Sparky's Magical Mac and Cheese Recipe
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter + 1 tbsp
1/4 cup minced onion
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground pepper
1/4 cup all-purpose flour + 1 tbsp
1 3/4 cups milk
1/4 cup beer (ale)
8 ounces of cheese, about 70—80% cheddar for flavor, but with a smaller amount of melting cheese: American slices, Monterey jack, Queso Quesadilla/Chihuahua, cut into 1/2 inch pieces (I often throw in more cheese if it's around)
Shredded cheddar or Potato chips
2. Cook pasta according to package directions, using the smallest suggested amount of time. Rinse with cold water to stop the cooking and set aside. (Ideally, if you prep and measure your sauce ingredients, you should be able to make the sauce as the pasta is cooking, so that it gets sauced shortly after rinsing)
3.Make a roux:
- Add onions to butter and sauté in a saucepan until the bubbles almost disappear.
- Add salt, pepper and flour, whisking or stirring until the mixture is nutty-smelling and thickly combined and slightly golden in color.
4. Make a Mornay Sauce
- First, make a bechamel, or white sauce - add milk and whisk over medium heat until thickened (this will happen when it begins to boil.)
- Add beer and mix thoroughly.
- Remove from heat and when all boiling has stopped, slowly mix in cheese, whisking until completely melted.
I found that the first time I successfully made Mac & Cheese (as an adult, aided by my Grandmother-in-law's Betty Crocker cookbook; all the classier recipes I used failed) the cubed, rather than shredded, cheese was crucial - I think it helps cool your sauce a bit. I've since graduated to shredded cheese; it takes a light hand and good judgement as to whether you've reached the right temperature:
Bake in a 375 degree oven for 20 minutes, or until the sauce bubbles and the topping is browned (don't ask me why it doesn't curdle in the oven, but mine doesn't.)
FWIW, I often use grocery-store-brand sharp cheddar; I'm sure a better, more aged cheddar would make a tangier sauce (though I agree, it's probably trickier to work with) but generally, I'm making this for an 8-year-old who's fine with the cheaper cheese.
Why do cheese sauces break, or separate into lumps and liquid? My guess - because the acids used to solidify the protiens in milk are present in cheese, and activate near the boiling point - you wind up with homemade cottage cheese if you allow a mornay to get too hot without other stabilization.