[Update]: Via Yoko's blog , I got to the recent Slate article  about a New York Times article (unfortunately already archived so you'd have to pay to read it) about macaroni and cheese. That recipe apparently used no bechamel. I know that bechamel is a pain in the ass to make, but really, it's worth it. As the Slate article quoting the NY Times article says, a mac and cheese is "Nothing more than tender elbows of pasta suspended in pure molten cheddar, with a chewy, golden-brown crust of cheese on top." This recipe produces exactly that. Maybe we should start campaigning for someone to produce canned bechamel...
I have a sneaky fondness for a lot of pre-prepacked, definitely not-gourmet foods...canned ravioli in tomato sauce, frozen fish sticks, instant ramen, canned corned beef, Marmite...the list goes on and on. There is one pre-packaged food that I detest though: boxed macaroni and cheese.
What makes boxed mac and cheese evil? It's that horrible powdered "cheese" sauce. It has an acrid undertone and a slighty grainy texture, and the most popular kinds have that neon-yellow almost chartreuse color to it that is quite revolting.
But the worst thing about packaged mac and cheese is that it has somehow given people the misconception that a real mac and cheese is quick and easy convenience food. I beg to differ. While you can have a quite edible cheesy pasta (dump a knob of butter, maybe some cream, and a ton of grated cheese on hot pasta), a real mac and cheese is occasion food. Its preparation, while not difficult, involves quite a few steps and takes a long time. Also this is really what we call around our house "fuck the diet" food (I've cleaned it up a tad for the title of this entry though!)- high fat, high cholesterol, high carb, high everything. My general theory on eating is, if it's high-(bad things) you want the very best version that you can get. Don't waste all those calories on inferior versions.
The characteristics of a really good macaroni gratin (as it was known when I was growing up in Japan) or mac and cheese are that it should have a gooey, unctuous, cheesy inside, topped by a crispy, intensely cheesy crust. This version fulfills those requirements. Serve with a plain green salad. You will not need anything else, unless it's a good red wine. Be prepared to compensate with spare eating for days afterwards. To my mind, this is the perfect thing to serve at a casual dinner party with close friends.
Note that this makes a lot of mac and cheese. You can serve it at a party (it would serve 8 to 10 hungry people), or freeze the leftovers, cut into portion-sized pieces and wrapped individually. It heats up nicely in the microwave, filling the house with that gorgeous cheesy smell every time.
Assemble the components of the mac and cheese in this order.
For the Sauce Mornay (cheese sauce)
Plus you will need an additional 3 cups or so of grated cheese - a mix of your main cheese plus Parmesano Reggiano, or a Grana Padano, would work great. And last but not least, 1 box (500g, or 1 lb) of small elbow macaroni.
Prepare the bechamel following these directions . While still hot, stir in the cheese and add a few drops of Tabasco. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.
In the meantime, cook a box of elbow macaroni (1lb or 500g) until just a bit before al dente stage - it should still be a bit chewy, since it will continue to cook and soften in the sauce.
Mix the cooked and drained macaroni in the cheese sauce. You will notice that there is the sauce to macaroni ratio is quite high - this is because the macaroni absorbs some of the moisture from the sauce while baking, and accounts for the unctuous texture you will taste later.
Pour the mixed pasta and sauce into baking pans. To avoid spillage, the pans should not be more than 2/3rds full, so you may need more than 1 pan. Top with the cheese reserved for topping - don't be shy. You can add breadcrumbs (panko) if you want extra crunch.
Bake in the preheated 180°C / 350°F oven for about 45 minutes until the top is a golden brown. At this point your whole house will be filled with that golden-cheesy smell. Take out of the oven, and let stand for at least 5 minutes before serving.
Note: if your guests are the type that think an all-cheese main dish is somehow lacking, add some uncooked chicken breast pieces to the bechamel a couple of minutes before you add the macaroni. This turns this into a chicken and cheese macaroni gratin, suitable for the carnivore.