The thing about Velveeta is that, like Spam, it isn't actually cheap. Which is not to say that it's expensive, but the smaller of two packages carried by my supermarket cost me as much as a container of fresh mozzarella would have - or to look at it another way, in cents per ounce, it costs about twice as much as Cabot cheddar, an affordable but very good everyday cheddar ... and one that I think would have a lot more food-blogging advocates than Velveeta.
Wait a second here, Bill, you are saying, what on Earth, for the love of Mike, why are we talking about Velveeta? Why on this blog of all blogs? This is not a family cooking household tips coupon clipping blog, this is not a college kid what kind of Captain Morgans horseshit goes best with this stupid Hot Pocket fuck my life blog, this is not even a very practical blog at all, what with carbonating fruit and eating lambs brains and all of that.
I finally got macaroni and cheese to come out the way I like it.
That's not a permanent situation - it's something I've said before, for one thing! and then later I made it a different way that I liked better. And cheese tastes, all tastes, change over time.
But the Velveeta helps, is the thing.
Maybe it's my brother's fault. He's the one who introduced me to Velveeta Shells and Cheese in the 80s, and so that's the boxed macaroni and cheese that is the Platonic mac and cheese for me, not the boxed kind with the powder. He probably doesn't even eat it anymore himself, but when he was 10 and I was 13, it was another story. Today, Velveeta Shells and Cheese is the only convenience food I buy other than canned hash.
This is not to say that my homemade mac and cheese is an attempt to emulate Velveeta Shells and Cheese. But a little bit of Velveeta ... well, it does just what it's engineered to do, what you've paid for: it melts perfectly, reheats well, and makes the cheese sauce that much creamier and more stable.
So the mac and cheese. This is the basic technique:
Boil your elbow macaroni. If you like, drain it when it still has a minute left to cook, and finish it in the Bechamel sauce as you're adding the cheese.
Chop an onion and cook it in butter. Add a little flour - after the onions are nice and soft - and build a Bechamel sauce by adding whole milk or half and half, and stirring over medium-low heat until the flour is incorporated. Do not brown the flour as you would for a roux. Simmer the bechamel on a low heat for a few minutes before adding cheese - this helps the flour really become incorporated into the milk as the starch gelatinizes. Both the starch from the flour and the fat from the milk are key to ensuring a creamy sauce that doesn't become grainy or curdle, a sauce the cheese can be melted into.
Seasonings you can add: paprika, cayenne (definitely adds something even when you don't use enough to add heat), nutmeg, mace, dry mustard (or prepared mustard, but not too much because of the vinegar). All of these can be added without making your mac and cheese weird - they'll stay within the expected flavor spectrum. Mustard is another thing that helps with the texture of the sauce, but it also enhances the flavor of the cheese. Some less traditional things you could add - dill, sriracha, rosemary. Your favorite seasoning blend might work well here - personally I love Old Bay.
The cheeses I add: in addition to a little Velveeta, I use a combination of hard grating cheeses (Parmigiano, Pecorino Romano, Asiago - whatever I have in the house) and softer cheeses like cheddar, gouda, and Monterey jack. Sometimes I add goat cheese. Sometimes I add cream cheese.
Melt cheeses into sauce; add macaroni.
Pour into buttered baking dish, top with breadcrumbs or crushed potato chips, and bake for 30 minutes or so at 350, depending on how deep the dish is filled.