This is in response to a posting on the LA board seeking transcendent mac & cheese. I've stumbled upon a recipe that, with a few modifications, is utterly wonderful.
The recipe is linked (and my modified recipe is posted) below. It's good ol' Alton Brown, who melts his cheddar into a bechamel and adds onions to give the flavor a zetz. Yes I know, onions in mac & cheese is unconventional, but once I tried it I was hooked.
What I've done is taken it one step further and sweated the onions and shallot in butter for about 30 minutes, with a final browning sear at the end to give the onions a slightly more browned edge than low heat sweating imparts.
I've also increased the onion/shallot mixture to 1 cup (instead of the 1/2c of raw, as the flavor of cooked onion is much more subtle than the acid punch of raw onion)
I also add a dash or two of cayenne pepper (not enough to make it spicy, but just enough so that you can taste it in the background). It goes without saying (so i'll say it here) that bland cheddar will yield bland mac and cheese. I use an extremely flavorful cheddar from Trader Joe's-- (can't remember if it was Old New York or Vermont cheddar-- it has a black label) Please don't skimp on the high quality cheddar-- you may as well make the velveeta deluixe.
I've modified the recipe enough so that this is not a copy of Alton's handiwork. So without further ado...
Mr. Taster's Great Eats Mac & Cheese
1/2 pound elbow macaroni
4 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon powdered mustard
3 cups whole milk
Yellow onion and 1 shallot, finely diced, enough to yield 1 cup when carmelized
1 turkish bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1-2 good dashes of cayenne pepper
1 large egg, lightly beaten
12 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Fresh black pepper
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup panko bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large pot of boiling, salted water cook the pasta to VERY al dente, it should be just past crunchy. (Remember the pasta will cook for another 30 minutes in the oven, so the pasta MUST be underdone when you drain it. I usually taste and drain it after 3-4 minutes. Then rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process)
While the pasta is cooking, in a separate covered (heavy) pan, melt 1 tbsp of the butter and sweat the onions and shallot over low heat for about 30 minutes, adding a little water (or butter) if the mixture starts to burn. Add a little salt to help concentrate the flavors of the onions and shallot, but not too much because we will season the cheese sauce with salt later. Once the onions/shallots are soft, add a little more butter and turn the heat up to give the onions a final intense caramelization to really brown the edges a bit. Remember all that wonderful flavor and aroma will leech into the fat in the whole milk when you add it later. Now, remove the mixture into another bowl.
Now, in the SAME PAN (and without wiping or washing it clean), melt the remaining 3 tbsp of butter. Whisk in the flour and mustard and keep it moving for about five minutes over medium heat, until the mixture takes on a blond color and gets a little toasty. Make sure it's free of lumps. Now add the onions back and SLOWLY stir in the milk, onion, bay leaf, paprika and cayenne pepper. Simmer for 10-15 over medium low heat (until the flour really thickens up the mixture-- it will be watery for about 10 minutea and will thicken rapidly towards the end. You can always turn the heat up a little after 10 minutes if it takes too long) and remove the bay leaf.
Temper in the egg (slowly beat in a few teaspoons of the liquid from the pan into the beaten egg, to very gradually raise the temperature of the egg. If you just pour the egg in cold, it will scramble in the milk mixture and you will get lumps of egg in your mac & cheese.) Now stir in 3/4 of the cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Note that you should add more salt than you think you need, since when you add the cheese to the macaroni, the saltiness will dilute.
Fold the macaroni into the mix and pour into a 2-quart casserole dish. Top with remaining cheese.
Melt the butter in a saute pan and toss the bread crumbs to coat. Top the macaroni with the bread crumbs. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven finish under the broiler for 2 minutes, to give the crust a nice dark brown finish. Rest for five minutes before serving.