Mac & cheese is traditionally made by melting cheese into a Béchamel base of milk, butter, and flour. This is an adequate technique, but its ease, reliability, and ability to tolerate temperature change is inferior to the modernist method of blending cheese in a boiling solution of 4% sodium citrate in water (published in the Modernist Cuisine at Home). Sodium citrate is a sour-tinged salt with similar chemical properties to other sodium salts used in cheese products such as Velveeta and Kraft singles, and confers to a cheese sauce the same desirable melting properties that can be found in those products. The use of sodium citrate in the home kitchen allows you to use a quality cheese to make a sauce that is just as silky and smooth as a Velveeta sauce. Because the resulting emulsion is so stable, the mac & cheese can be made well in advance of a gathering and reheated without issue, whereas a Béchamel-based mac may likely yield a grainy and gritty sauce under similar conditions. Be wary of maintaining the mac & cheese at an appropriately hot temperature when serving – the sauce will solidify to an unpalatable consistency as it cools.
Mac & cheese as a dish is a blank palette that encourages creativity. This iteration uses deep fried zucchini for a savory crispiness reminiscent of a breadcrumb-topped baked mac & cheese, but any topping can be substituted with different permutations of cheeses.
MODERNIST MAC + CHEESE // CRISPY ZUCCHINI
- 1 lb medium shells
- 600g cheese of your choice (will vary considerably depending on the type of cheese used. I would recommend purchasing extra cheese in the event that more is needed to reach the desired consistency)
- 22g (4 tsp) sodium citrate
- 2 ¼ cups water
- 1 large zucchini, sliced into discs
- 1 cup panko
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 cup flour
Zucchini: Slice and bread sequentially with flour, beaten egg, and panko. If preparing in advance, the zucchini should be breaded well in advance of actual cooking. The deep frying can be done in advance as well. To do so, heat an inch of oil until breading tossed in the pan sizzles vigorously. Deep fry zucchinis briefly on both sides until golden brown.
Cheese sauce: Stir in 22g (approximately 4 tsp) sodium citrate in 2 ¼ cups of water, and bring to a boil. Slowly stir in grated cheese while blending with an immersion blender. If the sauce is too watery, blend in additional cheese until there is a syrupy consistency. Season to taste, keeping in mind that the sauce will eventually be mixed with unsalted pasta. This can be made in advance, simply reheat and blend to its original consistency. If, at any point, the emulsion breaks, boil the sauce under high heat and blend vigorously.
Macaroni: Textured shells are superior to elbow macaroni both in aesthetics and ability to adhere the sauce to its surface. Boil according to the package instructions in salted water until al dente. Drain and mix with the cheese sauce.
Recipe adapted from Modernist Cuisine at Home.