Every tradition started out as just a random, one-time thing. One year en route to vacation, you stop at a diner, and that diner becomes your special summer pit stop. You order a certain type of wine on a first date, and then you toast with it every year on your wedding anniversary. Or your curiosity for an early viral recipe leads you to a family favorite you wait all year for.
Back in January of 2006, the concept of going viral was in its most nascent stages. "Lazy Sunday" had improbably exploded only a few weeks before. Twitter and the iPhone did not yet exist, though MySpace and Facebook did. And at the New York Times, Julia Moskin's mac and cheese was about to become the paper's first true banger recipe.
As Moskin writes in "CookFight: 2 Cooks, 12 Challenges, 125 Recipes, an Epic Battle for Kitchen Dominance," (coauthored with Kim Severson), "At the gray tail end of 2005, after the holiday cooking Armageddon had blown through the Dining section and we were all running on fumes, I was assigned to come up with a cover story — something, anything — for the first Wednesday of the new year. The resulting article about macaroni and cheese rose to the top of the most emailed list and stayed there, amazingly, for months."
The dish's allure was in its staggering simplicity — no bread crumbs, no mustard, not even a roux. Instead, it contained what Moskin herself described as "a seemingly outrageous 2:1 ratio of cheese to macaroni." Let's say that again: twice as much cheese as pasta. So shocking was Moskin's minimal on ingredients, maximal on dairy products take on the classic that Slate swiftly declared it both "weirdly popular" and just plain "gross." I, meanwhile, rubbed my hands together and thought, "Challenge accepted."
My daughters share a January birthday, a stroke of fortune which has over the years reliably provided us with memorable, chaotic celebrations. Moskin's recipe arrived right around one of our first double birthday days, and it struck me then as a likely crowd pleasing, indulgent prelude to cake and candles. I've been making it on demand every year ever since.
This is not the creamy, family favorite Kraft stuff we happily devour the other twelve months of the year. This is the one for the people who love the burned bits, the crispy parts, who yearn for a meal to stick to the ribs and possibly several internal organs. It's incredible, and it basically has just 4 ingredients: cheese, milk, butter and pasta. It's made even easier deploying Amanda Hesser's brilliant method of cooking up the whole works on a sheet pan.
I've increased the amount of milk here a little, and encourage you to play around with cheese combinations you like best. (Swapping out some of the cheddar with mozzarella is unbelievable.) As long as you trust the process and commit to using the full amount of cheese here, even while you're telling yourself, "Wow, that looks like way too much cheese," you'll be very happy.
The crustiest Mac and cheese
Inspired by "CookFight: 2 Cooks, 12 Challenges, 125 Recipes, an Epic Battle for Kitchen Dominance" by Julia Moskin and Kim Severson and Food 52
- 12 ounces of sharp cheddar cheese
- 12 ounces of American or mild cheddar cheese
- 1 cup of whole milk
- 1 pound of macaroni or similarly sized pasta (I like rigatoni.)
- 3 tablespoons of butter
- Preheat the oven to 475°F. Meanwhile, bring a big pot of salted water to a boil.
- Coarsely grate your cheeses and combine them in a big bowl. I will not judge you for using the pre-shredded stuff. Reserve 2 cups of the cheese mix.
- Generously butter a 11- by 17-inch rimmed baking sheet. I'm not kidding about this.
- Cook your pasta about 10 minutes, or according to directions and drain.
- Into your big bowl of cheese, add the pasta and the butter.
- Spread your cheesy pasta on your baking sheet. Pour the milk evenly over the whole works, and then top with your reserved cheese.
- Bake about 15 minutes, until everything looks golden and crunchy. Serve immediately and inhale.
For her birthday, my firstborn always likes to follow this with chocolate fridge cake, and she's right.
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