This Cookbook Taught Me How to Make the Macaroni and Cheese of My Dreams
For the duration of my pregnancy last year, I craved macaroni and cheese. Though I tried my best to eat balanced meals that provided me and my growing baby with the nourishment we needed to thrive, I also convinced myself that a major source of that nutrition could come from cheesy pasta. Since my husband doesn't share my love of mac and cheese, I don't tend to cook it at home. When I do, it never quite lives up to my mom's version, and I'm often left wondering why I bothered to turn on the oven in the first place.
Towards the end of the summer and my pregnancy, we lured our friends over to celebrate, and I made a big dish of macaroni and cheese to go with our salads and burgers. I was determined to make a good one; one that was both impressive to my friends (who know I work at a food magazine) and satisfying to me, the seven-months-pregnant host cooking according to her own obsessive cravings. The company was great and the macaroni was so-so, and I finished out my pregnancy wishing I'd found a better recipe.
Months later I found it in chef Ashley Christensen's cookbook, named for her award-winning Raleigh diner Poole's, where her Macaroni au Gratin is the most ordered dish on the dinner menu. (Last year they sold 16,441 orders.) I tasted it in Nashville this past July, at a dinner Christensen cooked at PROOF, the Audi Culinary Dinner series that featured chefs and graduates of the James Beard Foundation's Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership Program (WEL). I immediately tracked down her cookbook to attempt it at home.
A disclaimer: This macaroni is incredibly decadent. With only six ingredients, it's easy enough to put together, but it's still more of an invite-your-friends-and-family-over kind of meal than the dinner you make yourself to eat in front of Netflix.
Made to order using three cheeses—white cheddar, Jarlsberg, and grana padano—Christensen's macaroni has been on the menu at Poole's since it opened in 2007, and has served as a barometer of the success of her North Carolina restaurant. These days Christensen's team uses a food processor (and recommends models by Cuisinart for home cooks) to grate the more than ten thousand pounds of cheese used in this dish annually, but in the early days, Christensen remembers using a household box grater for the task. If you decide to go that way for yours, she prefers all-metal graters (we like this one) because "they hold up better than the ones that have plastic or rubber parts."
I recently made her recipe, and the end result was well worth how hot the oven made my apartment on a summer day. Creamy al dente elbows are mixed with cheese, then topped with more cheese and broiled until a golden brown crust forms on top, while the insides remain perfectly gooey. Though I can't say this recipe performed the greatest miracle of all—bringing my husband over to team macaroni and cheese once and for all—my daughter's now a fan, and since we maintain the household majority, I don't see it leaving our special occasion menu anytime soon.
Buy the cookbook: Poole's: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner, $19 (originally $35) at amazon.com