Andy wouldn't care if he never ate mac and cheese again, so I took advantage of a night when he was out to try this recipe for Pete and Julie, who, like me, would care very much if we never ate mac and cheese again. This comes from Amanda Hesser, who rightly says, "I've always thought macaroni and cheese's 20% crunch to 80% soft ratio was all wrong. The ratio should be more like 50:50. The soft part, delicious though it may be, wears you out. You need lots of crisp bits to stay interested in the dish." So now we can all slap our heads and say "D'oh!" that we didn't beat her to the idea of making mac and cheese on a baking sheet, to maximize crunchy top-ness.
It turned out splendid. The top was gorgeous (although my photo ... not so much, so use your imagination), and the bottom also browned up nicely and slid right out, thanks to the butter on the bottom of the pan. The whole thing could just about be removed as a single plank of mac and cheese. I couldn't imagine why she didn't include bread crumbs on top, so in the interest of science I sprinkled some panko over only half, and that half did get even browner and crunchier. So next time I will do the whole thing, but lightly—you don't want to completely cover the top or else the cheese won't get brown and luscious. Next time I might sneak in some blanched broccoli, too.
1 tablespoon butter
12 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
12 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
1 pound pasta spirals (or other small shape)
⅛ teaspoon cayenne (Whoops—I was out of cayenne, and none of us missed it.)
⅔ cup whole milk
Heat the oven to 475°. Use the butter to thickly grease an 11-by-17-inch rimmed baking sheet. Combine the grated cheeses and set aside 2 heaping cups for the topping. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for 6 minutes. (I know the pasta is supposed to be only parcooked before it goes in the oven, but this just did not seem like enough, so I let it go another minutes.) Drain. In a large bowl (I used the pasta pot), toss together the pasta, cheeses, cayenne and salt to taste. Spread the mixture on the buttered baking sheet and evenly pour the milk over the surface. Sprinkle the reserved cheese on top and sprinkle on a little extra cayenne. Sprinkle some panko over the top, if desired, and bake until golden and crisp, about 15 minutes.