Modernist Cuisine’s mac and cheese

My first plan for my newly acquired powders – and one of the main reasons I picked up some carrageenan – was to finally try the mac and cheese recipe from Modernist Cuisine, arguably the most famous and frequently made dish from the book.

The recipe uses sodium citrate and carrageenan to make a cheese sauce that’s supposed to be “purer” in flavour than traditional, flour-thickened cheese sauce. I’ve read conflicting reports on whether or not the carrageenan is necessary, so I decided to wait until I had some so I could include it.

It’s not very often that I’ve gone against the current on Modernist Cuisine recipes, but this one is an exception: I don’t especially like the mac and cheese.

From a procedural standpoint, I found the cheese sauce hard to work with: after melting the cheese into a mixture of water, beer, sodium citrate and carrageenan, you’re supposed to pour it into a bowl and chill to solidify, then grate it for the final dish. I found that even at fridge temperature, it was soft like cream cheese, making it hard to grate, and the grated strands clumped together. Of course, I didn’t use the cheeses specified in the book, so it’s likely that my chosen cheese (a briefly aged white cheddar) had a higher moisture content.

The macaroni was problematic for me, too: it’s cooked in a small amount of water, rather than a large pot, so it cooks through with just enough water left to melt the solidified cheese sauce. With the quantities specified in the recipe, though, the pasta was too firm for my taste, there was little water left over, and the cheese sauce ended up thick to the point of being gluey, and congealed as soon as the hot pasta hit the cold bowl. (I don’t routinely heat my bowls for a casual dinner.) And at the risk of invoking the old “the food here is terrible, and the portions so small” joke, the portion was too small! It would probably be fine as a side dish, but I was hoping to have it as a meal unto itself.

But all of these are details, and adjustments can be made to account for them. After making the recipe to spec, I used the remaining cheese sauce to make another batch (I was still hungry!), with twice as much macaroni, and more than twice as much water, to yield a softer noodle and a thinner sauce. This was much more successful, but still suffered from the main problem I found with the dish: it tasted like processed cheese.

I can’t tell you what that taste is, exactly, but it’s there. I’ve never been much of a fan of processed cheese; I harbour no nostalgia for Kraft Singles. Of course, this recipe is for processed cheese, even if it’s homemade, so it shouldn’t be surprising that that’s how it tastes. It’s possible that part of the problem was the cheese I used, so I’d be willing to try again with a different cheese, but in the meantime, the Ideas in Food mac and cheese will continue to be my go-to recipe.

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5 Responses to “Modernist Cuisine’s mac and cheese”

  1. Hi Matthew, I’ve made comparisons side-to-side of the same sauce with and without the iota, and the iota does produce a noticeable firmer product when solid, which does not spread as much when melted. That probably contributed to you having a soft cream product when cold rather than something that can be easily grated.

  2. Thanks, EnriqueB. Sorry if it was unclear in the post, but I actually did use the iota carrageenan, so I don’t think that was the problem!

  3. Sorry then! I understood you didn’t.

    I use aged Comté and Cheddar for this M&C, I like it but I don’t have a taste memory for it to compare with, as it is not a common dish in Spain! I must try the Ideas in Food version.

  4. Yes, I suspect that using a drier, aged cheese is probably important for achieving a firm texture with the chilled sauce. I do encourage you to try the Ideas in Food version!

  5. Yes! In fact I was reading a book by Hervé This the other day and he explained that aged cheeses produce better sauces (for some technical reason I don’t remember). I also think they are useful to produce a flavour that make the sauce different from industrial processed cheese (which will never use such expensive cheeses).