I am by nature a “yes, and” woman. Especially when it comes to food. I embrace the full range of the spectrum, because yes, I love perfect thrice-cooked frites made with an organic potato cooked in duck fat and served with a white truffle aioli for dipping. AND I like a McDonald’s French fry, so hot out of the fryer it threatens the integrity of the roof of my mouth, dunked in classic Heinz ketchup.
Which means I have a "yes and" relationship with macaroni and cheese. I like a Classic Baked Mac and Cheese. I like a punchy stovetop macaroni and cheese. I like a slightly healthier mac and cheese that sneaks in extra vegetables, or one that sneaks in ham or chicken. Fancy ones made with smoked gouda, or down home versions starring Velveeta, all have a place on my plate.
I make a homemade mac and cheese so decadent and delicious that it made a convert of my traditionally mac-eschewing husband. He still doesn’t much like mac and cheese, but he loves MY mac and cheese.
But let’s be clear, I am also unapologetic in my adoration of both the frozen Stouffer’s mac, and my passion for the original blue box of Kraft. I don’t usually buy the Stouffer’s unless I am having that particular craving, but I always have one or two boxes of emergency Kraft in the pantry.
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What’s so wonderful about boxed mac and cheese?
Like many during these unprecedented times, I have been craving comfort foods—especially those that evoke memories from my childhood. In a time of uncertainty and when your baseline mental state is a hum of buzzing anxiety, food that evokes a time when you trusted the grownups to make smart decisions to keep you safe is a very good thing. So, it is no wonder that during my initial pandemic pantry stock-up, I bought a five-pack of Kraft Mac & Cheese, and am down to just one box left. As someone who tends to only eat it once or twice a year, four boxes in four months is a lot. But it has made me happy, soothed jangled nerves, and fed my soul as much as my stomach and for that I am grateful.
It has also led me to the single greatest mac hack I have ever discovered (and if someone else invented it first, don’t @ me).
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The ultimate boxed mac and cheese hack
Because for some weird reason, in an era when all I have is time on my hands, I really wanted to make my mac and cheese even faster and easier, and in doing do, accidentally made it better! Not wanting to wait for the pasta water to boil, or to add the step of draining, I gave my mac a one-pot makeover and I will definitively never make it any other way. Even better? I upped the creaminess while reducing the fat, and I did not add any additional ingredients to those listed on the box.
Here’s what to do:
1. Put 1½ cups of water and ½ cup of milk in a saucepan (this is twice the milk listed on the box but stay with me). Add 1 tablespoon of butter and the dry pasta. Yes, the pasta in the cold water and milk mixture, with a little floating butter nugget.
2. Turn the heat to medium high and bring to a boil.
3. Reduce heat to medium and hard simmer, stirring every minute or so, until most of the liquid evaporates—about 6 minutes.
4. Add the packet of powdered cheese sauce mix and a second tablespoon of butter, stirring until the mixture thickens and the noodles are fully cooked—about another minute to 90 seconds.
5. Serve and be amazed at how creamy and delicious it all is.
The mac and cheese magic explained
Note that while the milk was doubled, I halved the butter in the recipe. (You can use whole or reduced fat milk per your taste, but if you use skim you might want to up the butter just a smidge more). Still, the mac was the creamiest version I have ever had, and the cheese sauce was luxurious and had fully merged with the pasta instead of just being a soupy slick on the outside.
The reason is simple: Like in any one-pot pasta, minimal liquid becomes intensely saturated with the starch coming off the cooking pasta, making your sauce silky and eliciting great texture. It amps up a creamy mouth-feel without needing to add so much butter. The fact that you then are at about an 8-10-minute bowl of mac, with only one pot and one spoon to wash, and no need to dig the colander out of the cabinet, is an extra little mac miracle.
So, whether you are having a once-in-a-great-while indulgence of a childhood fave or have a weekly mac attack; if you are cooking solo or for your kids; I bet once you try this version you may never go back… except for seconds.
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