Why Hello There! Welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes! If you don’t know what we do here, then TOO BAD. I ain’t your Wal-mart Greeter, son. No, I’m Jon O’Guin, resident madman and only author who kept showing up after his dad got cancer. (Guys, I keep telling you, it’s not contagious.) Today’s recipe is gonna be nice. Assuming you’re not Lactose Intolerant. If you are, well, TOO BAD AGAIN. Today, we tackle homemade Shells in White Cheddar.
Heroes in a Half Shell
Shells in White Cheddar, if you’re unaware, is one of the mainstay flavors of Pasta-Roni that can be purchased in basically every grocery store. I’d honestly assumed it to be one of their first flavors, but it appears it actually was added to the line-up decades later, only shortly before my birth.
The dish is loosely based on a couple simple premises: first, the small, shell-shaped pasta itself is modeled after an Italian pasta named Conchigliette, meaning…”little seashell pasta”. Look, not every etymology is mysterious or complicated. Second, as that German whore Kraft was demonstrating by making milliions, simple boxed meals of “pasta in cheese, preferably cheddar” were REAL popular among Americans, and lastly, that if you squint hard enough, a typically stuffed shell served in alfredo could be mistaken for empty shells in WHITE Cheddar.
To be fair, you could claim this was a SOUP, and I'd be pretty easily convinced.
It’s worth noting that this similar utilitarian meaning is where the entire brand name comes from. The DeMenico family, the original producers of “Rice-A-Roni” named it that because it was a mixture of rice and pasta. “Macaroni” contrary to popular American belief, actually refers to a number of shapes of pasta, and some pasta dishes that use OTHER shapes of pasta. There are at least 2 recipes that use spaghetti that are called “macaroni” (Well, maccheroni, but potato, pommes de terre.). So the idea was the “roni” part told people there was, well, macaroni in it. Two decades later, they made “Noodle Roni”, because apparently now they felt they needed to tell people that their NOODLES had PASTA. Later, another company bought the brands, and renamed Noodle-Roni to Pasta-Roni, which didn’t solve the problem, but at least made It a little less stupid-sounding.
Regardless of relative ridiculousness of names, Shells in White Cheddar is the preferred boxed pasta mix of true connoisseurs, a word I am STILL getting wrong, though at leas now my I is in the right place. A comment mostly only heard by that one British pirate with the incredibly Italian name in the Pirate movies.
I've watched FOUR Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and I don't know if Ragetti here is ever called by his name. Or his bald friend Pintel. I think they're just "Those two dumb pirates."
I want you to know that just double-checking his name made me wander into the madness that is the, apparently-a-real-thing Pirates of the Caribbean novels. And no, I don’t mean “the novelizations of the Pirates MOVIES”, I mean the…This can’t be right…TWENTY actual novels set in that WORLD, consisting of in at least one example, the actually-not-too-bad-but-definitely-overstuffed story of how Jack got the Black Pearl, promised his soul to Davey Jones, betrayed the East India Company, and how Barbarossa became one of the Pirate Lords. (Note, the first three of those are implied in a 3 minute deleted scene from Pirates 3, so you can see how they’d FILL A NOVEL)
I was talking about something other than the…shudder…Pirates of the Caribbean extended universe, though. What was it? Seashells? The deadly Tulip Cone Snail? Oh, right, pasta. Yes, as I was saying, true connoisseurs, (HA, FINALLY GOT IT.) such as my brother and me always prefer Shells in White Cheddar when we dine on Pasta Roni. I honestly think it’s for fairly pragmatic reasons: the sauce is a little thicker, so it holds the heat better, and we’re normally not eating boxed pasta dinners unless it’s too wet and cold to go get groceries.
It doesn’t particularly matter why it’s my preferred lazy-cozy-time treat though, excepting in the raw academic sense, or, I suppose, if you were hoping to build a sense of intimacy with me, trying to understand the secret dreams and wishes I have, the subtle coding of my references and innuendos. But I don’t see any of y’all buying me dinner, so we can rule that scenario out pretty easy. What matters is that when the rain is splatting against the glass (that’s important: if the rain’s simply misting or tapping against the glass, it’s not necessarily too rainy for me to say “eh, I can stand walking to the car and back a couple times in this.”) and the wind is strong enough to shake the branches of the trees, you’ll often find me curled up with a bowl of Shells in White Cheddar in my hands, and a space heater under my feet.
Be sure not to fall asleep with blankets near the heater, though.
I've made that mistake before.
In Spanish, “Béchamel” sounds like you’re telling someone to Kiss Mel. Whether we mean the Spice Girl or the Jewish Comedian, we may never know.
So you want to make homemade Shells in White Cheddar. Well, there’s many good reasons to do so: it’s a hearty and warming dish that can help you withstand the frigid sloshing hellscape that is Winter. You can use it to lure Jon O’Guin into traps. (Warning: the infrequency with which he is offered meals means he will likely suspect the trap from the offer. On the other hand, he’s fairly arrogant and always hungry, so it’s a 50:50 on if he goes for it.) Or, like my family, you can use it because you have unresolved psychological issues that drive you to buy more cheese every time you shop, and you’ve got a bag of almost-a-year-old dried pasta you’ve got to use up before it goes bad.
Don't let the placid exterior fool you. This box Can Do Bad All By Itself.
If you’ve ever made real homemade mac-and-cheese, the basic structure of this dish will not be much of a surprise: as in ALL homemade pastas using cheese sauces, you start with a Béchamel.
I’ve covered the béchamel many times on the site, but if you somehow missed them all, either because you’re new, you hate dairy, or you secretly hate me and only read these occasionally to remind you WHY, allow me to over-explain a simple concept I’ve already told you while including glib self-deprecation, since that’s basically my entire personality, and should therefore stoke the fires of your rage hot for a good while.
As the old Lousiana joke goes, First, you make a Roux. Mix equal parts flour and fat (melted butter’s the most common, but if you’ve got something you want to use for flavor like bacon drippings, olive oil, or even lard, they’re all fair game) in a pan over medium heat. It should end up looking like you carelessly left chunks of cookie dough scattered about a hot pan. (Actually, you should be adding equal parts flour and oil BY WEIGHT, meaning for every 2 parts fat, you want 3 parts flour, but most people ignore that because most RECIPES ignore it.)
A weird fact about roux is that they start out looking really dry, and then dissolve into liquid.
Your (and the broader world’s) negligence established, add milk. Now, we’re shooting for a pound of pasta, so we’re using about a pint of milk. Except we didn’t have enough milk, so we added heavy cream. HEY, I told you we were doing this to ward off the icy fingers of winter! Fat Content isn’t the enemy today, hypothermia is! Speaking of hypothermia, I’ve heard conflicting advice on just how hot your lactose-libation is meant to be when it hits the pan: classic wisdom holds that you ‘always cross the streams’ with roux: if the roux is hot, you add in cold. If you’re adding cold roux, make the dish hot. However, some cooks apparently find that the cold mix hitting the hot roux creates a bit of bubbly mess, where they can get splashed with hot roux. So if you’re worried about your personal safety, you can warm up the milk. If you want GOOD SAUCE, then you SUFFER.
Now, here’s where I push up my word-nerd glasses and get real butt-hurt about something stupid: Once this mixture thickens up, you can hit it with pepper, maybe a little nutmeg, and it’s done. THIS is the béchamel sauce. Béchamel is roux, milk, and flavorings. We added garlic powder, some dry mustard and cayenne (the latter two are known for helping cut rich cheese sauces, and my love of garlic is essentially the edible form of stalking.), but nothing else to the béchamel, because THE INSTANT the cheese hits the sauce, it stops being béchamel, and becomes a different sauce. So many recipes say shit like “after mixing in the cheese, pour the béchamel over the pasta”, and you fucking CAN’T, YOU DON’T HAVE THAT SAUCE ANYMORE.
I know this is a little thing, and I only bring it up because, as we said like, a year and a half ago, one of the reasons béchamel is a popular sauce is that it’s a mother sauce. What makes it cool is that it turns into a bunch of other sauces. It would be like calling a quesadilla a “tortilla” or a quiche “eggs”. Once cheese hits the sauce, it’s no longer a béchamel, it’s a Mornay.
sauce is pure white
and there's cheese
Jon freak out and classic song references aside, you mix in white cheddar to make your Mornay. Also, this entire time, I hope you were boiling shell pasta. You weren’t? Oooh. That’s rough, buddy. Now you gotta…simmer your sauce while you boil it. Huh. That wasn’t bad at all.
Once the pasta is prepped (actually, pulled a pinch pre-prepped) and the sauce is simmering, do the right thing and marry those two in a formal Catholic ceremony. As we all know, Italian culture forbids the entering of moist orifices without the approval of the Papacy.
"May your spirit and your moisture go in accordance with God' will, my child. May your orifices serve him with what enters them, and by what leaves them. "
Yeah, now you have to imagine Pope Palpatine saying "Moisture" and "orifices".
Seriously though, “marrying” a pasta is the accepted term for finishing the cooking of the noodles in the sauce itself. It lets the ingredients all meld together better, the sauce can slightly suffuse the structure of the shells, and has anyone else noticed I’m very alliterative today? I don’t know, I’ve felt very melodic for some reason. Anyway, if the sauce is too thick, you can cut it a little with the pasta water you definitely didn’t dump all out. If you did, know that my sauce had like, 40% more cheese than it should have, and I didn’t need any water, so it’s not a huge risk.
Noodles married, sauce suffusing and all that jazz, you can taste the results of your efforts: soft rounded pasta coated in thick warm cheese sauce. The kind of food that sits in your gut and warms you all the way through. Honestly, a little too well. My sauce was a little on the rich end even for me, so I cut it with a grind of “Everyday Seasoning”, a mix containing fennel seed, lemon peel, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. So, basically, every damn flavor. It’s real good with this.
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THURSDAY: JON TALKS SUGAR STATES, AND RESOLVES TO ATTEMPT TO MINIMIZE THE NUMBER OF WHITNEY HOUSTON JOKES HE MAKES WHEN THE “HARD CRACK” STAGE IS HIT.
MONDAY: JON BRINGS BACK SOME VEGGIES HE THINKS HE COVERED BEFORE, BUT CAN’T FIND PROOF
Shells in White Cheddar
1 pound medium shell pasta
2-3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 pint whole milk (honestly, any milk works.)
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/2 tsp dry mustard
8 oz white cheddar cheese, shredded
1. Boil water, and cook the shell noodles slightly under package instructions, roughly 1-2 minutes short of "al-dente".
2. While the water is boiling, work on the béchamel: melt the butter in a large skillet or saucepan over medium heat. When melted, whisk in flour until combined. Let cook 1-2 minutes, stirring frequently. Slowly add the milk, stirring to incorporate each addition. Once milk is fully added, bring to a simmer, and cook until thickened to your liking. Add seasonings, and stir.
3. If pasta finishes before the sauce, reserve 1/2 cup pasta water, and drain pasta. Meanwhile, going one handful at a time, add the cheese to the hot béchamel (making it a Mornay), stirring to fully melt and incorporate. Once incorporated, add the drained pasta to the sauce, stirring and tossing to coat. Simmer for a few minutes, stirring frequently. Taste sauce for seasoning and thickness, adding pasta water or seasoning to taste. Serve immediately.