Monday, February 13, 2012

Million Dollar Mac and Cheese

Macaroni and Cheese. Cheese and Macaroni. It's a delicious treat. It's a comfort food. It can also be made really, really badly. I mean, who hasn't in their life eaten a box of THIS STUFF? Yellow death. Loaded with preservatives and salt, it's horrible for you and in all honesty, doesn't really taste that great unless you doctor it up with some real melty gouda, some scallions or shallots, and a bread crumb topping. Even then, it's still pretty foul.

In this post, we'll learn how to make REAL homemade Mac and Cheese with quality ingredients. It's delicious, gooey, cheesey, and has a lot of FLAVOR and really doesn't take much time. It uses a French technique, but never fear. It just sounds impressive. I guarantee your family will want to lick the casserole dish when you're done with this meal.

(for a family size meal):

  • 1 lb. Pasta (rotini, mini-penne, rigatoni, Macaroni shells or elbows - something bite-size that will hold on to the sauce)
  • 1 1/2 cups Shredded Cheese (sharp cheddar, smoked gouda, pepper jack, Parmesan, Romano...choose something with a strong taste that will stand up to the pasta - make a mix if you want to)
  • 2 Tbs. butter
  • 2 Tbs. all purpose flour
  • 1 cup non-fat or low-fat milk
  • salt
  • pepper
  • panko bread-crumbs

1) Prepare the Pasta

Bring lightly salted water [you need to salt the water to infuse a little flavor into the pasta since we won't be doing anything else to it] to a boil and add16 oz (by weight) dry small pasta - I used mini-Penne pasta, but you can use traditional macaroni, shells, or small rotini, rigatoni, or another smaller pasta. Cook to desired doneness. I like mine a little beyond "al dente" which literally translates to mean "to the tooth." It means the pasta is not hard, but has some resistance and is a little chewy. I prefer mine softer than that.

2) Make your cheese sauce
This sauce starts with a b├ęchamel, one of the Mother Sauces of French cooking. Don't be intimidated, however; it is surprisingly easy to create this sauce.
You will need
2 Tablespoons of butter
2 Tablespoons of All Purpose flour
1 cup of non-fat milk (warmed in the microwave)
1 cup (or a little more) of your favorite shredded cheese* [I used shredded colby/jack]
Salt and Pepper to taste.
*Note: The stronger cheeses, like sharp cheddar or smoked gouda will give a cheesier taste, but the Colby/Jack mix works well too.

We start this sauce with a roux, which is just equal parts butter and flour. Over medium heat in a non-stick pot, melt the butter, being conscious not to let it burn! Once the butter is melted, use a wisk and blend the flour into the butter. Keep stirring, being sure not to let the roux darken, otherwise your sauce will take on the wrong color and perhaps a burned taste. It should take on a very light caramel color.

After about 2 minutes, we turn the roux into the b├ęchamel by SLOWLY adding the milk, about a quarter cup at a time, into the roux. KEEP WISKING or you will get a lumpy sauce. (Note, this sauce will be thick, so if you like it thinner, add 1/4 to 1/3 cup more milk). Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir often, especially the bottom of your pot, until it thickens and JUST begins to boil (anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes). At this point, I add my pepper and salt.

Pull off the heat and add 1 cup of your cheese, a couple handfuls at a time, stirring vigorously to melt it. It will be thick, and cheesy and gooey (mmmm gooey). You may be asking about the other 1/2 cup of cheese. HOLD ON!

3) We Move to the Oven

Spray an oven safe dish with cooking spray. Pour your cooked pasta into the dish, and spread the cheese sauce over the pasta, stirring it together to incorporate all the pasta into your sauce. Smooth it out and top with a very thin layer of bread crumbs. Spread the last 1/2 cup of cheese on top, then load it into a 375 degree oven for 20-25 minutes. It is done when topping is golden brown and sauce is bubbly.

Let set on the counter for about 5 minutes so everything is cohesive and cools enough to be safe, then dish up. Waiting on this gooey treat is the hardest part!

TIPS/Add Ins:

Add frozen peas, spinach, finely diced cooked carrots, small florets of pre-cooked broccoli or cauliflower, etc. when you mix the cheese sauce into the pasta to increase the vegetables in this dish. Your kids will eat it up because who doesn't love veggies smothered in cheese sauce?

Add 1/4 cup of silken tofu to boost the protein in this dish. (Blend 1/4 cup of the milk and tofu in the blender before mixing it into your roux)

Add 1/4 cup of diced chicken or ham if you're into that kind of thing; I don't eat meat.

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