My brother got me Modernist Cuisine as a PhD graduation/birthday combo present. It’s a beautiful book (the photography itself is amazing) filled with lots of helpful/intriguing food-scientific information, tables, and recipes laid out like lab procedures. It won a James Beard Award. It was written (and sponsored) in part by Microsoft’s former CTO. It is often called “the most important cookbook since Escoffier.” It’s kind of a big deal.
Sadly, most of the recipes in Modernist Cuisine are… impractical. For example, (one of) the potato purée recipes calls for a good quality juicer (okay…), a sous vide set-up (expensive!), and a centrifuge (what). Not exactly Mom’s mashed potatoes :0 … (or even Joël Robuchon’s). I could go on and on about some of the ridiculous stuff their recipes calls for but the point is that I do not have the means for 99% of the recipes in the book. I don’t even own an immersion blender, for chrissakes.*
However! They have a macaroni and cheese recipe which is totally approachable, as long as you have access to some nonstandard pantry items… namely, sodium citrate! Available, like everything else you could ever want, on Amazon (currently out of stock, but the company also sells it directly). I picked mine up at Le Sanctuaire.
So you know how when you make macaroni and cheese from scratch, you have to make a roux, turn that into a white sauce, and then add the cheese? THE WORST! I love mac and cheese, but I really dislike this method… mostly because I am almost always unsatisfied with either the cheesiness (not cheesy enough) or the texture (gets grainy if you add too much cheese, use the wrong cheese, etc.) or sometimes the flavor (starchy if you get at all impatient during the roux-making). After all that work and stress, disappointing results are just unacceptable.
Enter SCIENCE. Cheese is an emulsification of whey and fat (and delicious flavor magic), and it’s stable at room temperature, but most (real) cheeses do not hold their emulsified state when heated—especially aged cheeses. This is, as the Modernist Cuisine staff writes, “a cosmic injustice.” Sodium citrate allows the emulsification to be heated without breaking. My understanding is this: whey proteins loosely bind calcium ions, and when cheese is heated, these calcium ions get excited, ESCAPE, and then screw up the emulsification. Sodium citrate prevents this from happening by binding to (or “sequestering”) the calcium ions more strongly and at higher temperatures. Anyway, it’s synthesized from baking soda and lemons, the FDA considers it completely safe, and our government would never lie.
Modernist Mac and Cheese
(Adapted from Modernist Cuisine)
- 1 1/8 cup water, water-beer mixture1, or milk
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sodium citrate2
- 4 cups grated cheese3
- salt, to taste
- 1/2 lb macaroni4
Mix the sodium citrate into your water (water-beer, or milk) until dissolved, then bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the cheese slowly to this solution, whisking until the cheese dissolves(!) into the liquid after each addition, like magic. Behold: cheese sauce! Add salt to taste.
You can now refrigerate the sauce or just take it off the heat. It will set a bit, but the emulsification should not break,5 and whisking vigorously will bring its texture back to the desired level of creaminess.6 Boil your macaroni to al dente and drain it (BUT DO NOT RINSE IT, we want some starch on it to hold the sauce), then fold in the cheese sauce. Add toppings and ENJOY.
This makes about 4 servings of creamy, delicious mac and cheese. “Oh my god” is the only appropriate reaction. I promise.
1 I used a half-and-half solution of water and Hefeweizen. If you use beer it WILL foam vigorously as you whisk, which will occlude your vantage of the magical emulsification process, but it will eventually die down. Do not be alarmed, human.
2 I might bring some with me to DC next weekend if you want some!
3 I used aged gouda and sharp cheddar in a 1:2 ratio. This was a good thing. You can’t make mac and cheese with aged gouda the old-fashioned way, I think. Also, I (or John I guess!) grated it fine, but that might be unnecessary.
4 I used cavatappi. It’s what Ina would do.
5 If it DOES break, MC recommends bringing the solution to a boil, whisking, then cutting the heat. If that doesn’t work, they recommend doing that but also adding some cream. I had absolutely no problems. If you want it to set long-term (as a “constructed cheese”), you also should add 1/4 tsp of iota carrageenan (a gelling agent derived from algae) in with the sodium citrate. SCIENCE IS FUN
6 I would describe the final texture as akin to that of Stouffer’s microwaveable mac and cheese—but of course more delicious and waaay cheesier. If you like your cheese sauce thicker, you probably just take the liquid down a notch and the sodium citrate up a bit. The sodium citrate doesn’t really affect the flavor as far as I could tell (it’s mildly salty/sour on its own) but probably don’t “go crazy.” Anyway, you can use a thicker cheese sauce for nachos! \o/
* In October 2012, they released Modernist Cuisine at Home, which is far more practical for those of us that do not have ultrasonic baths or reliable sources of liquid nitrogen. Anyway, cool gift idea for the food science enthusiast in your life! I hear this book also has a baked version of the above if you like your mac and cheese gratinéed.
** This observation is essentially how Kraft got his start. You are essentially making Velveeta (with fewer preservatives, colorants, and with actual cheese instead of
soybean oil concentrated milkfat and milk solids).