It finally happened the day before Thanksgiving in 2017.
I knew I’d done it the moment I slipped that first forkful into my mouth. The pasta was perfectly tender, neither too firm nor too soft. The cheeses combined into a heavenly blend of sharpness, richness, and saltiness with the right gooey, melty factor. My chosen seasonings gave just enough oomph without overpowering the dish. I let out a whoop of joy, turned on some Beyonce, and danced around my tiny New York City kitchen in triumph, waving my fork in the air like a majorette’s baton.
It took a few years, but I had finally achieved peak mac.
In the pantheon of soul food, mac and cheese is one of the most important dishes. Few other foods, except for perhaps fried chicken, evoke the same level of passion, intensity, and strong opinion that mac does. In the African American community, one’s ability to make great mac is considered a leading indicator of your overall culinary skills. If you can’t make mac, you can’t call yourself a good cook. Likewise, if you bring bad mac to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, your dish contribution privileges will be revoked forever.
At its core, mac is a pretty simple dish with a handful of basic ingredients: macaroni, flour, butter, cheese, milk, spices. But as any seasoned cook can tell you, the simple dishes are often the hardest to get right.
There are so many ways to mess up mac. Use too much flour in your roux, and you’ll end up with a floury aftertaste or grainy texture. Turn the heat up too high, and you can scorch your roux in an instant. (You have to start over at that point.) Get lazy with whisking and those horrible lumps will never come out. All these things have happened to me.
For the past several years, I’ve been on a quest to perfect my mac recipe. Name an input and I’ve experimented with it: types of cheeses, milk versus cream, baking duration, whether to use bread crumbs, etc. My approach would have made a scientist proud. I kept a log in Evernote with…