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1 pound dry pasta* (454 grams) I usually use small shells or mafaldine
One small can (5 ounces) of evaporated milk
2 cups of white cheddar cheese, shredded, or more
6-8 ounces of cream cheese, cubed
In a saucier or skillet bring to a boil 1.5 liters of water with 2 grams of salt dissolved in it (6 cups, and about 1/2 teaspoon of fine sea salt). This is way less water and salt than I usually use, but the cheese will add lots of salt to the dish, and you'll be adding using all of the pasta water, so it will balance.
Add a grating of nutmeg and then the pasta, stirring occasionally during the entire cooking time to avoid clumping and sticking. The goal is for the water to be nearly absorbed by the time it is done cooking (you'll want it a few minutes beyond al dente for this dish), it will vary a bit depending on your pasta and heat, and you can always add a splash of water if the pasta is still too firm.
Turn off the heat and add the evaporated milk, stir well and begin to add the cheeses in small bits, stirring to incorporate them. The residual starch in the pasta water will help you form a smooth sauce.
Season with additional nutmeg to taste, and a tiny bit of chili or hot sauce if you like (I find the heat brings out a lot of flavor and is not itself detectable).
Any leftovers keep great in the fridge and can easily be reheated.
* it's always better to get a great quality pasta, the slow extrusion and drying creates a rough surface that the sauce will better adhere to.
This may in fact be what you came here for. Get one box of your favorite macaroni and cheese. Boil 2 1/2 cups of water, unsalted, and cook the pasta as above. In a serving bowl add the contents of the cheese packet, 2-3 tablespoons of melted butter, and a generous grating of both Parmigiano Reggiano‡ and nutmeg. When the pasta has absorbed nearly all of the water, add it and any pasta water to the serving bowl and mix well. That's it! Not a butter fan? Substitute 1/2 cup of milk for water when cooking the pasta and you can reduce the butter to 1-2 tablespoons.
‡ Parmigiano Reggiano supplies more flavor than texture, so you can always substitute a bit of parm stock. To make the stock, I accumulate inedible rinds until I have about a pound of them, then pressure cook them for a half hour in minimal water (or simmer for 3 hours on a stove top). Reduce as much as I care to, then strain and freeze in ice cube trays. It's an incredible way to add fast flavor and use the leftovers of a great ingredient in new ways. A perfect addition to sauces, braises, and dressings, the frozen stock can even be grated to make a savory granita to accompany poached meats and vegetables.
If you'd like to make a casserole version I first recommend using a pasta with holes like cavatappi. Follow the directions above, but pull the pasta a couple minutes early and use the full 8 ounces of cream cheese. Place in a buttered casserole dish and bake for 10 minutes, then add a bit of extra cheese and any spices you like, and broil until browned on top (watch it while you do this, it will happen fast).
Food images and recipe © Christian Leue
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