The world didn’t need another mediocre macaroni and cheese. So Dan Kish, Panera Bread® head chef and former associate dean at The Culinary Institute of America, embarked on what became a three-year quest to create the ultimate version. While traveling across the country, he sampled about 150 versions of this classic American comfort food and tested 30 different recipes, primarily in his kitchen at home. “It’s almost embarrassing how much effort went into this single product,” he jokes, “and for a while I had the waistline to prove it.”2010-12-01
Kish sampled the dish at mom-and-pop diners, church potluck suppers, Texas steak houses, and even gourmet New York City restaurants. One of his most memorable experiences was at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese at Pike Place Market in Seattle. “They make their macaroni and cheese out of curd, and it was great,” he says. “It was inspiring in terms of achieving a very melted yet sharp taste.”
Kish’s final creation (see the recipe below or sample it any Panera Bread bakery-cafe) actually turned out to be pretty simple. It’s made from a blend of white Vermont cheddar and white American cheeses, plus a little cream and butter. The Vermont cheddar delivers the tang, while the white American supplies the wonderful consistency. Also key is the rigati pasta that Kish selected. It resembles a miniature snail shell, having one end that’s open, another that’s pinched close, and tiny ridges across its surface. This serves to nestle the cheese sauce in every nook and cranny.
“Every portion of our Signature Macaroni & Cheese is also individually prepared,” Kish adds. “So it’s not sitting in a steam table all day getting overcooked and crusty.”
Getting hungry? Kish admits there’s something about macaroni and cheese that everyone loves: “I remember going to church suppers when I was a boy. My chin was only about table high, and it looked like a landscape of macaroni and cheese in front of me. Because of experiences like that, it’s always been a food that I associate with social gatherings and feeling good. It’s rich at the same time it’s enriching.”
Panera Bread’s Signature Macaroni & Cheese
Adapted by Head Chef Dan Kish
1 (16-ounce) package of rigati pasta (or other small pasta shells)
¼ cup butter
½ cup all-purpose flour
2½ cups 2% reduced fat milk (or cream)
6 slices white American cheese, chopped
1 cup (8 ounces) shredded extra-sharp white Vermont cheddar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon hot sauce
1. Prepare pasta according to package directions.
2. Melt butter over low heat. Whisk in flour and cook 1 minute, whisking constantly.
3. Gradually whisk in milk (or cream); cook over medium heat, whisking until mixture thickens and bubbles. Remove from heat.
4. Add cheeses, mustard, salt, and hot sauce, stirring until cheese melts and sauce is smooth.
5. Stir in pasta and cook over medium heat for 1 minute (or until thoroughly heated).
Serves 4 to 6