Sunday, February 15, 2015

Mac-n-Cheese Upgrades

One of my favorite comfort foods is Mac-n-Cheese, made from scratch. Home-made made "mac" is all I've ever served my children, and I'm pretty sure when they have children, they won't be serving their little tykes any of that nasty, dyed-orange stuff from a blue box.

If you haven't ever cooked macaroni & cheese from scratch, I urge you to try it. It's easy, and the results are delectable. (I've included my recipe at the end of this post, for your convenience.) Even if you already have a Mac-n-Cheese recipe you love, here are a few ways to upgrade this classic, homespun dish:

1. Rub a cut clove of garlic around the insides of the dish you're going to use. This step alone takes the recipe up to a whole new level of deliciousness:

2. Expand your repertoire of cheeses. Usually made with mild or medium-sharp Cheddar, Mac-n-Cheese made with some other cheese--or a combo of cheeses--is divine. Try an extra-sharp Cheddar instead. Or take out some of the Cheddar and substitute in some Blue cheese, smoked Gouda or Gruyêre, or Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Incredibly delicious!

An extra-sharp Cheddar (top) mixed with Parmigiano-Reggiano (below) is one  of my favorite combos. BTW a quick way to identify a true Parmigiano-Reggiano (only made in a certain area in Italy) is from the markings stamped into the rind:

3. Increase the crusty-chewy quotient. If you love a golden crust atop your mac-n-cheese like I do, don't pour the entire recipe into a deep dish (like a soufflé dish). Instead, portion it out into ramekins or shallow, flat individual dishes like these, below. You'll get more chewy crust per serving that way. Use a soup ladle to neatly ladle it out:

Yum, waiting to happen:

4. Finish off your mac with a delicious topping. Before popping the casserole or individual ramekins into the oven, I make a simple-but-scrumptious topper to up the yum quotient. Just stir up a little shredded cheese (like Parmigiano-Reggiano), some herbed bread crumbs, and some melted butter in a small bowl:

...and distribute a little on top of the individual portions:

Ohhh, yeah!:

5. Make a BIG batch. If you're going to cook from scratch, make your time count! Cooking up a large recipe means you can freeze individual portions and reheat them when you're too tired or stressed to cook. I freeze the ramekins before baking them, and then when they're fully frozen, I wrap each one in foil and pop several in large, zip-style freezer bags. They keep for weeks that way:

You can either cook the mac-n-cheese the same day you make it, or you can cook one you've previously frozen. No need to thaw it in the fridge first, either--so long as you're using a shallow dish like these. Just pop the frozen mac's into the oven (they may have to cook a bit longer when done straight from the freezer, obviously).

When I serve such a rich dish for an entree, I keep the rest of the dinner simple and "clean." A tossed green salad (lightly dressed) or simple steamed broccoli or green beans (hold the butter, please) makes a perfect side to this classic dish:

Happy eating!

UPGRADED MACARONI AND CHEESE  (serves 6-8)                 (roughly 20 minutes prep time)

For the pasta:
one or two cloves of garlic, cut in half (for rubbing inside the serving dish)
1 pound elbow macaroni (about 4 cups)
6 tbsp. butter
6 tbsp. flour
3 cups milk
a little bit more than ½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. onion powder
½ tsp. white pepper (or if you don’t have it, black will do)
dashes of Tabasco sauce
4 cups grated cheese (sharp Cheddar chess, smoked Gouda or Gruyêre, or just about any kind or combo of cheeses you love, totaling about 10 ounces)

For the topping:
2-3 Tbsp. butter, melted
1/4 C. or so of grated cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 C. or so of Panko or Italian bread crumbs (store-bought is okay; home-made is wonderful)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Rub the cut garlic cloves around the inside of the serving dish or dishes you intend to use; discard cloves (or better yet, toss into your soup-stock scraps). Set prepared dish or dishes aside.

In a large pot, boil three quarts of water and 2 tsp. salt. When the water reaches a full, rolling boil, add macaroni and cook until al dente.

Meanwhile, in 3-quart sauce pot, melt butter. Remove pot from heat, whisk in the flour thoroughly, and return to the flame. Heat the mixture up until little bubbles form around the edges and cook the butter-flour mixture (technically called a roux) for two minutes, stirring constantly—do not let it brown!

After two minutes, remove roux from heat and gradually whisk in the milk, a tablespoon or so at a time, thoroughly blending after each addition. Return the milk mix to the flame and dump in any remaining milk, as well as the salt, onion powder, pepper, and Tabasco sauce. Cook and stir until thickened, which may take as much as 10-15 minutes or so.

When the milk mixture thickens, add grated cheese and stir until cheese is melted. (I like to switch from a whisk to a wooden spoon at this point.)

Drain the cooked macaroni, return it to the large pot, and stir the cheese sauce into the pasta. Ladle into prepared serving dish or dishes.

To make the topping: In a small bowl, stir the melted butter, 1/4 C. grated cheese, and bread crumbs together. Using your fingers, scatter the topping lightly over the prepared macaroni.

To freeze: Place the completed dishes immediately into the freezer. When fully frozen, wrap well in foil, then place in a zip-style freezer bag for later use.

To bake: Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until crusty and golden-brown on top--approximately 40-45 minutes if using one large casserole dish, possibly as little as 20 minutes if using small and/or shallow individual serving dishes.

Makes 6 generous servings, or 8 more modest-sized servings.

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