How do you like your mac and cheese or cauliflower cheese? No doubt you have your hidden secrets, your favourite cheese combinations (cheddar, provolone and parmesan work a treat, as one chef revealed recently to me), your personal twists (a little pickled jalapeno chopped and lingering like a tiny battleship), your many little ways of making your perfect cheese sauce. But do you ever get enough of that cheese hit? Even with all of that cheese?
I make my sauce really thin with the smallest amount of roux possible (roux? a combination of flour and butter used to thicken sauces). Even so, I sometimes can feel the flour lingering below the surface, a little scratchy, and as a result, I end up with a sauce that is not as velvet rich as I would like it to be. The flavour of the cheese often feels muted too. Making it as cheesy as I would like involves a lot of cheese, and that can be a little too thick. What I want in my mac and cheese is a sauce that is pure cheese, but with a perfectly smooth delicate texture. Simply melting the cheese won’t deliver this, as the cheese congeals as the fat and the water separate at high temperatures. Luckily, someone has worked out how to fix this, and that is what I am going to share with you.
Lots of American recipes for queso dip and perfect smooth cheese sauces use velveeta, a processed cheese with a smooth melting consistency. In principle, this is great, but I want to use real cheese, I think most of us do. I want the the best flavours made with real ingredients, but proper cheese won’t melt as velveeta does. (The same goes for happy slappy cheese, those cheap processed cheese slices favoured for burgers as they melt just right, in the same way as velveeta does).
Enter Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO of Microsoft and now author and publisher of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking and Modernist Cuisine at Home. When Modernist Cuisine was first published I met Nathan in London at the former St John Hotel to talk to him about it and to have a look at the book. The book is enormous, a 6 volume tome which was wheeled in behind Nathan on a trolley by an assistant (each set costs almost £400). It is impressive, and appealed to my scientific background (my primary degree is in science and my masters is in technology), however, I couldn’t see that I would use this book at home. Modernist Cuisine is chef porn, and didn’t appeal so much to me.
A little later Modernist Cuisine at Home was published. Aimed at the home cook (hello! that is me!), and with whole chapters dedicated to Breakfast Eggs, Steak, Chicken Wings, Roast Chicken, Carnitas and Mac and Cheese (there are many others), this was a book that was more accessible in terms of kit (there is a little sous vide but also everyday home kitchenware like ye olde familiar pots and pans, blenders, the microwave and pressure cookers (mind you, I still don’t have a pressure cooker at home). I turned immediately to the Mac and Cheese chapter and discovered that Nathan, with his team, had developed several intense and perfectly textured Mac and Cheeses.
How? Using sodium citrate. A chemical, yes, but bear with me. Isolated from citrus fruit, and used to treat cystitis, but also as an emulsifying salt in the production of products like velveeta. Using sodium citrate it is possible to produce a perfect rich smooth cheese sauce which tastes only of the cheese that you used. It is incredibly easy, and it is super quick too.
I made a simple cheddar cheese sauce using the Modernist Cuisine at Home recipe. The only change I made was to add a teaspoon of dijon mustard at the end to give it a little piquancy. I used half of the sauce for a mac and cheese (finished with some bread crumbs and a little grated cheese) and the other half for a cauliflower cheese which also had a little spinach.
Sodium citrate is easy to source online and if you love a velvet smooth mac and cheese as I do, I think you should definitely try it. You will need a very accurate digital scales to measure the sodium citrate, but this is something that is invaluable in a kitchen, and I would recommend investing in one, if you don’t have one already.
Now, I have just one question. Could this be a cystitis busting mac and cheese?! Answers in the comments if you have found so, please.
Recipe: Modernist Cheese Sauce for Perfect Mac & Cheese and Cauliflower Cheese
adapted from Modernist Cuisine at Home
265ml milk (you can also use water)
11g sodium citrate
285g grated cheddar cheese
1 tsp dijon mustard
sea salt, to taste
Combine the milk (or water) and sodium citrate in a pot. Whisk to dissolve and bring to a simmer.
Add the cheddar cheese gradually, whisking to dissolve as you do. The original recipe calls for an immersion blender to do this, but I found that whisking fine grated cheddar was fine, and quick too.
Add the mustard and season to taste.
For Mac and Cheese add to pre cooked macaroni and bake in a 180 deg C oven topped with breadcrumbs and a little grated cheese. For cauliflower cheese, add to cauliflower that has been blanched in boiling water for just a couple of minutes, and finish with breadcrumbs and cheese as before too. I like some spinach in mine too, which I add with the cauliflower just before adding the cheese.