The Quest for the Perfect Mac n' Cheese

A bowl of mac n' cheese

It's no secret that I'm obsessed with mac n’ cheese.

Not the kind that comes in a blue box and tastes like plastic and sugar, but honest to goodness, homemade mac n’ cheese. A dish that starts with a bechamel sauce and ends with real cheese and copious amounts of salt.

That kind of mac n’ cheese.

I didn’t really discover my now favorite food until I was an adult. I’ve always been enamored with anything that mixes cheese and carbs: quesadillas, grilled cheese, mozzarella cheese sticks, pizza, you name it. I’d eaten Kraft here and there growing up, but my mom wasn’t a great cook and the closest we got was cheesy rice (which is literally just adding cheese to Uncle Ben’s.) It’s one of those childhood comfort foods I still love but albeit, not mac n’ cheese.

I made real, homemade mac one of the first times I cooked for dinner guests and I fell in love. It was so much more than just adding cheese and milk to pasta.

Bechamel was magic. I loved watching the butter and flour turn into the creamy sauce of my dreams.

The resulting pasta was the perfect blank canvas for my wildest imagination. Bacon, or green chilies or potato chips. The possibilities were endless.

I became obsessed, yet I have never had the perfect bowl of mac n’ cheese.

I’ve tried dozens of recipes. I’ve riffed on my own. I’ve been on the quest in Denver for years to find the best mac n’ cheese. I’ve tried mac with pulled pork and mac with kimchi and mac with piles and piles of shredded cheese. This year, one of my best friends even took me to a mac n’ cheese festival, where I must’ve tried two dozen varieties.

And yet, that perfect mac is elusive.

She must be creamy. But not overly creamy.

You have to be able to taste the cheese, but it can’t be overwhelmingly cheesy. I’ve learned here, the trick is salt. When your mac isn’t quite cheesy enough, the answer often isn’t to add another handful of cheese, it’s to add another pinch of salt, which brings out that cheesy flavor.

It needs mix-ins, but not so many that it overwhelms the real star of the show.

It needs a surprise texture. The crunch of a potato chip, or the brightness of a shower of chives.

Anytime I tell someone about my quest, they want to know which restaurant has my favorite mac n’ cheese in Denver. That’s a hard question and it often changes. If you want really good mac n’ cheese, my current recommendations are Sassafras, which is a New Orleans style brunch restaurant and is just all around amazing (don’t forget to order the fried pickles!) and Smok, which is a barbeque joint in one of my favorite collective eateries, the Source. I have yet to try The Corner Office’s mac n’ cheese on menu, but their entry was our favorite at the Denver Mac and Cheese Festival.

Would a sommelier say that the perfect wine exists, somewhere out there in the universe? I don’t know.

I tell myself that there is a perfect mac n’ cheese out there, but I don’t know if that’s true. Will there ever be that mac that transcends all others? Or will I spend my life saying, good, but not perfect. Is the perfect mac n’ cheese my white whale?

Maybe, I tell myself that she exists so that I never have to stop looking. Because, if I settled for great mac n’ cheese, my quest would be over. A quest that with each bite reminds me of an unattainable childhood. Reminds me of ski lodges I have never sat at and Sunday picnics on church lawns I have never attended. It wraps me in the warm melancholy of comforts I’ve never experienced and comforts I have experienced. On bad days, I crave mac n’ cheese. On perfect, beautiful evenings enveloped in the warm laughter of friends and string lights and a hand in mine, I say, let’s get mac n’ cheese. The comfort is steadfast and always there. I may not be able to call my mom, but I can make mac n’ cheese.

So, I keep adjusting milk ratios and screenshotting lovely looking bowls off of Instagram and psyching myself up for the first bite and feeling that moment of joy as the hot and creamy, cheesy and salty goodness hits my tongue. And then, that flutter in my chest calms down because, no this is not the one. I finish the dish in contentment, scraping the cheesy residue off the bottom of the empty plate with my fork, because though it might not be the one, it’s damn good.

And my quest continues another day.

Think you’ve found the perfect mac? Leave your recs in the comments and I’ll give them a try and do a review of your favorites.