How Can You Improve Cheese?

Like all good hearted people, I love macaroni and cheese. I like experimenting with food more than the average bloke. If I see something with bone marrow or oil-cured grapes on the menu, I will probably order it. Nothing tantalizes me more than an ingredient or a dish I have never tried before. But I always come back to macaroni and cheese. Also fried chicken, but I’m not talking about that right now dammit!

I had an article on visceral imagination almost finished. It discussed quantum probability clouds, and privatized weaponization of psychological traits, and a mountain that literally stuns with its beauty. I was all ready to post it. Then I made dinner. And I have to share.

I have been making macaroni and cheese for almost as long as I have been seriously cooking. Longer, if you count Kraft. I have gotten pretty good at it. I thought I had the serious secret to flavorful mac down: use really good, expensive cheese. I learned this working in a high-end restaurant in Seattle with mind-blowing macaroni and a cheese. The menu includes $90 dry-aged steaks, fresh ahi-tuna tartare, and tableside caesar salad that is famous throughout the city. Almost everyone who walks through the door orders the macaroni and cheese.

As a caveat that I am going to throw in even though it disrupts the flow of the article, we once did a catering event for a party of high-end Swedish clients. They thought it was hilarious that a classy restaurant would serve them mac and cheese. They barely touched the stuff. High-end American clients usually polished it off even before they finished the steak-crostini or the organic crab cakes. Go figure.

The problem with expensive cheese is…it’s expensive. You probably saw that coming. Recently I discovered a way to add a richness and depth of flavor to make a macaroni and cheese that rivals those I have made with high-end sharp cheddar. It is effortless, and roughly as expensive as adding dirt. I suppose that depends on what kind of dirt you add. If you add the dirt from your back yard, that would be cheaper. But this is cheaper than store bought dirt. And at least as delicious, maybe more-so.

The secret? Nutritional yeast. If you know about nutritional yeast, it is mostly likely in the context of vegan macaroni and cheese. That’s how I learned about it. Nutritional yeast is exactly what it sounds like. It is an inactive yeast derived from the brewing process that is added to food. It is frequently used to simulate the flavor of cheese in vegan or non-dairy dishes. It doesn’t exactly taste cheesy. I would describe the flavor as more of a meta-cheesiness. It adds characteristics that are also found in cheeses, and if you eat some and close your eyes, you might sort of think you are eating cheese.

I was curious if it was good eating with cheese, as opposed to merely as a substitute for it. The internet was no help. I am sure someone else has tried this, and probably blogged about it. But that information is buried in a sea of vegan mac and cheese recipes. I like vegan mac and cheese, but it is a different dish entirely. So I tried it out. It is fantastic. You can’t tell the nutritional yeast is there. Like the soy sauce that I also always add to macaroni and cheese, the yeast enhances the cheese flavor without making itself known. I served this with an arugula salad, and it was an amazing meal. I can’t wait to try it with expensive cheese.

Yeast-enhanced Macaroni and Cheese

Serves 6

  • 5 T butter
  • 5 T flour
  • 1 t kosher salt
  • ¼ t cayenne pepper
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 t soy sauce
  • 6 oz sharp cheddar, shredded
  • 6 oz Monterey jack, shredded
  • 3 T large flake nutritional yeast
  • 3 T water
  • 2 T fresh thyme, chopped
  • 1 pound dry pasta, cooked in salted water. I used rotini, but use whatever you like
  1. Warm the milk in a sauce pan, or in a container in the microwave until warm
  2. Melt the butter in a large pan over medium high heat
  3. Add salt, cayenne, and flour, whisk to make a roux. Cook for 1-2 minutes until lightly browned.
  4. Add milk and soy sauce, and whisk vigorously to combine. Warm milk will integrate with the roux more quickly and more smoothly than cold. Trust me, this extra step is work it.
  5. Once the sauce is thickened (it should have the consistency of gravy), ditch the whisk and grab a wooden spoon or heat-proof spatula. Add the cheese in 3 or four batches, still on the heat, stirring with each one.
  6. When the cheese is mixed in but not totally melted, take the pan off the heat, and cover. Let it sit for three minutes. This step ensures the cheese will melt slowly, and the sauce will be much smoother.
  7. After the three minutes, stir the now-melted cheese in.
  8. In a separate bowl, mix the nutritional yeast and the water together.
  9. Get your whisk, and…when I said ditch it, you didn’t throw it out or anything, right? You still have it? Okay, good. Get your whisk and whisk in the yeast-mixture.
  10. Stir in the fresh thyme. Check for salt level. Remember that even if you salted the pasta while cooking –which I trust you enough to believe that you did– the flavor of the sauce will be diminished by the neutral flavor of the pasta. It should be pretty strong.
  11. Mix the pasta with the sauce and stir to combine

There you go! Bob’s your dinner! Or your uncle’s dinner. Maybe the macaroni and cheese is named Bob? Should I go change that? Oh, whatever. Enjoy!

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