Admit it, you love bright orange processed cheese sauce. You find the sight of it inexplicably comforting. You love the little paper packet, which you found in the box of macaroni like a secret cereal-toy surprise. And you love the lighting-fast transformation of that dry powder into salty, noodle-coating liquid gold.
Most of the recipes out there for gnocchi mac and cheese call for store-bought gnocchi, served with homemade cheese sauce. Yet gnocchi is probably the easiest variety of pasta to make by hand from scratch. Macaroni, on the other hand, is impossible to make at home without an extruder, which is pretty far down most people’s list of must-have kitchen equipment. This recipe flips the script, calling for a cheese packet from store-bought mac and cheese, served with homemade gnocchi. It’s fast meets fancy, lazy meets laborious, and it's all supremely satisfying.
The key to making great gnocchi is the texture of the dough. The russet potatoes are baked or microwaved in order to dry them out slightly, so that most of the moisture in the dough comes from the egg yolks. When mixed and ready for rolling, it should feel a bit like Play-Doh. Get it right, and this whole project will make you feel like a kid again.
- 2 pounds russet potatoes
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1/2 cup all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus more for the pasta water
- 1 box store-bought mac and cheese
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 3/4 cup milk or half-and-half
Poke the potatoes all over with a fork, sticking each potato 8-10 times. Microwave them on high for about 10 minutes, or bake them in a 350F oven for about an hour, or until soft all the way through. Let cool for about 15 minutes.
Cut the potatoes in half lengthwise and scoop out the flesh with a spoon (use a dish towel to protect your hand if the potatoes are too hot). Discard the skins or reserve for another use, like cheesy potato skins.
Pass the scooped potato through a ricer (or mash with a masher or fork) then, using a one-cup measuring cup, measure two lightly packed cups of mashed potato. Reserve any remaining potato another use.
Transfer the two cups of mashed potato to a large bowl. Add the salt and egg yolks and combine, then add the flour and knead by hand until the yolk is completely distributed and the dough is the texture of play-doh. No need to knead for a long time; just incorporating the flour should get you there.
Divide the dough into four pieces. Roll one of the pieces into a long rope about 1/2-inch thick. Cut the rope into half-inch (gnocchi-sized) nuggets. You can gently roll each nugget between your hand and the tines of a fork to create "gnocchi ridges," but you can skip this step if you’re short on time. Place the finished gnocchi on a flour-dusted sheet pan. Repeat with the remaining three portions of dough.
Bring about 4 quarts of water to a rolling boil in a large pot. Add about 2 tablespoons of salt to the boiling water.
While the water is boiling, prepare the sauce. Add the butter and milk to a large skillet over medium heat and whisk in the packet of cheese sauce. Keep whisking until all the lumps are gone. If the sauce seems a little thin, let it bubble and reduce for a minute or two, but don’t let it get too concentrated or it may be too salty.
Add the gnocchi to the boiling water and give them a quick stir to prevent clumping. When they begin to float, leave them boiling in the water for another two minutes.
Remove the gnocchi with a slotted spoon, or drain them in a colander before adding them to the pan with cheese sauce. Stir to coat the gnocchi completely with orange (or white, if that’s your thing) goodness. Remove from heat, and serve immediately.