One of the first foods I ever learned to cook myself was the good ol’ classic blue-box Mac’ and Cheese. It was an after school staple in my house. Much like my culinary journey as a whole, I learned to make the cheesy noodles in order to feed my cravings. I remember endless debates with friends about how to prepare the pasta properly. One friend with a milk allergy grew up with her mom using OJ in place of milk, which I still can’t quite comprehend, but apparently it worked for her. I myself, having always been a rule-follower, measured precisely according to the boxes instructions every time. While another friend of mine never seemed to add the milk and butter the same way twice, but always ended up with the perfectly cheesy (not too thick, not too thin) version that was hands down my most preferred.
Contrary to expected belief, I haven’t grown out of mac’ and cheese. Cheesy pasta will always be in style, as far as I’m concerned. But, early on in my cooking adventures I began asking the question about my favorite foods “how would I make this from scratch?”
Early on it also started to dawn on me that the reason boxed/packaged/frozen/convenience foods ever became popular in the first place is because it was originally a food made well from scratch. Then, most often I’d realize how much better a fresh version tasted than the bottled or boxed kind. Ranch dressing? Check! BBQ sauce? Check! Baked beans? Check! Bread, pasta, pie crust, waffles – check, check, check and check!
It’s not just for fun that I do this. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that shelf-stable foods are shelf-stable for a reason. They are more or less “manufactured” to be edible, while also being non-perishable. In order to work, these foods require chemicals, treatments, processes, stabilizers or preservatives….whatever you want to call them. And they aren’t necessarily things that show up on ingredient labels, so we just can’t always know what goes into those packaged foods.
I’m no purist, and I eat my fair-share of unhealthy or processed foods, that’s for sure. But life is always about compromise and balance, right? Which is why I advocate for making things from scratch as often as possible. If you can make it from scratch more often than you make it out of a box, I think that’s winning at life!
I’m not talking about some fancy-schmancy mac’ and cheese here either. I’m talking kid-friendly, after-school-staple, box-like mac’. All you need is pasta, butter, flour, milk and cheese, plus a little salt and pepper. Well, I also call for a little turmeric to get that yellow color, all the more help to mimic the kids expectations.
Even the time the boxed variety saves isn’t much. When you make the cheese sauce while the noodles boil in a separate pan, you can have a from-scratch cheesy mac’ just how the kids like it on the table in 10-15 minutes. Isn’t that worth it? I think so!
Mac’ and cheese doesn’t have to come from a box to be easy. A basic roux with milk and cheese is all you need to create a tasty, cheesy pasta dish, so ditch that box and make it from scratch!
*Organic ingredients optional:
12 oz pasta shape
1 tablespoon butter, unsalted
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 cup whole or skim milk
1 cup cheddar cheese – about 4 ounces
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon + 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Fill a medium saucepan with water then cover and set over high heat. Bring to a boil.
While the water comes to a boil, grate the cheese.
Once water is boiling, season with 1 tablespoon of salt and stir in pasta. Cook until al dente, according to the time on the package.
Strain cooked noodles and set aside. Place saucepan back over medium-low heat. To make a roux, add the butter and melt. Then, add the flour and stir until the butter and flour are well combined. Mixture should look smooth and it will start to bubble. Cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring often.
Slowly pour in about 1/4 of the milk mixture. Whisk or stir until the milk is absorbed, then pour in a little more milk. Continue to do this until all the milk is added and the mixture is smooth. Be sure to scrape up any roux from the edges of the pan.
Whisk in the turmeric and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Allow the milk to boil for 1-2 minutes to thicken. Lower heat back to medium and whisk in half the cheese. Stir until cheese is melted, then whisk in the remaining cheese until melted and sauce is smooth.
Stir in the pasta noodles. Check taste and add more salt if desired. Lastly, if sauce is too thick, add a splash of milk. Scoop and serve warm!