I recently became a follower of the blog Pinstrosity, which I'm loving so far. If you don't know what it's all about I suggest going and checking it out. There's some really fun stuff on there! A few days ago they posted a recipe for Revolutionary Macaroni and Cheese, and after reading through the recipe I was intrigued. I decided to give it a try for lunch today and see what I could find out about it.
Since it was just me at home I decided to only make a half a batch, so that I wouldn't have mountains of questionable mac & cheese on hand. Then I split that half batch between two pans, one to make following the original directions exactly (the control batch) and one that I could play around with (the test batch).
For the control batch I followed the directions from the recipe as exactly as possible. The only deviation was that I think I ended up using almost twice as much milk as it said to. If I had let that pasta go for 20 minutes without adding some milk, it wouldn't have had enough liquid to cook the pasta and it would have burned to the bottom of the pan. I'm not sure exactly how much I added, I just put in a few drops every time it got too dry. The recipe says to add the mustard to taste so I put a little in at a time, but for my taste preferences it needed all the mustard. I also followed the recipe's suggestion to add more milk at the end to make it more creamy, otherwise it would have been inedibly dry. I was skeptical about the need to cover it and let it rest for 5 minutes after cooking, but the pasta seemed to absorb even more liquid as it sat and that may have enhanced the richness of the pasta, though I can't prove that.
For the test batch I made several changes. The original recipe says to cook your pasta for 20 minutes, which seemed like a huge amount of time to me, so I only cooked my test batch for about 15 minutes. I also made a few other changes like adding the salt to the pasta while it cooked instead of afterwords, adding more cheese, and using ground dry mustard instead of the prepared Dijon mustard. I skipped the step where you let your pasta rest for 5 minutes.
So what were the results you ask? Well, here we go. I'll start with the test batch. I think the pasta itself had more flavor from being cooked in the salt instead of the salt being added at the end. I thought the more subtle flavor of the ground mustard would be better for this dish but I didn't end up liking it. Granted, I do think I got too much in there, but I still think it wouldn't have been that great. The texture was rich and creamy, but tasted incredibly bland (except for the overpowering mustard) even though I added extra cheese. This recipe could be called Creamy Macaroni, but I wouldn't add cheese to the name. That's more than a little misleading. What surprised me most was that the noodles were definitely under cooked, despite the unusually long cooking time. I realized though that instead of boiling your pasta like usual, you're just simmering it so it makes sense that you'd have to cook it longer. Duh!
Now for the control batch. It was rich and creamy, the hint of Dijon mustard was a nice addition. Again, the flavor was incredibly bland. If it weren't for the mustard there would have been no flavor at all. There is such a small amount of cheese that I really couldn't taste it at all. The pasta was cooked to just about the perfect doneness and yet still had a really odd texture.
After thinking about it and doing a little research, here's my hypothesis as to the weird texture. Pasta contains starch which normally cooks out into the water and is drained off. What little starch remains stays in the pasta to help give it texture. Since there was no liquid to drain off along with the starch it all stayed right there in the sauce. Also, if the starches in pasta are similar to the starches in rice, than the more you stir it the more starch is released. That is how risotto gets its creamy richness. This means that not only are you not getting rid of the starch that comes out during cooking, but because milk requires frequent stirring while cooking, you're actually encouraging the release of MORE starch into your sauce, hence the bizarre texture.
So my final conclusion? The original recipe is just not that great, but it makes an edible product if you're not too picky. The sauce is too starchy, there's not enough cheese, it just isn't great. If you want good Mac 'n' Cheese, then either stick to the beloved blue box, or make your own with a tried and true recipe (once I've finished scraping pasta starch off the roof of my mouth I'll have to make my mom's recipe and post it here for anyone who's interested). Honestly by the time you stand there and simmer the dumb stuff for 20 minutes, you've put in enough time to have done a quality job, so why not do it right to begin with?