Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Macaroni and Cheese

Why oh why would anyone voluntarily eat macaroni coated in reconstituted cheese powder when they can make tastier macaroni and cheese from scratch, with the same amount of effort? (Ok, who, besides my husband?) Even if you use that boxed stuff, you still have to boil noodles, add butter, milk, and cheese, and stir. Why not buy a box of elbow macaroni and a hunk of sharp cheddar cheese? Or if you're too lazy harried to bother with chopping up the cheese, buy a bag of pre-shredded stuff. Real cheese - what a concept!

Basic mac & cheese is pretty tasty, but in my house, we like to fancy it up a bit. Our favorite easy peasy recipe is from Alton Brown. Here it is, courtesy of the Food Network:

1/2 pound elbow macaroni
4 tablespoons butter
2 eggs
6 ounces evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Fresh black pepper
3/4 teaspoon dry mustard
10 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded

In a large pot of boiling, salted water cook the pasta to al dente and drain. Return to the pot and melt in the butter. Toss to coat.

Whisk together the eggs, milk, hot sauce, salt, pepper, and mustard. Stir into the pasta and add the cheese. Over low heat continue to stir for 3 minutes or until creamy.

Feel free to go crazy and modify this recipe. Omit the mustard and hot sauce. Use a mixture of cheeses (the other night, I made an eight cheese version, using odds and ends of hard goat cheese, manchego, some triple creme, and leftover Mexican blend shredded cheese along with the usual cheddar and Monterey jack). If you don't have evaporated milk in the pantry, by all means use regular milk. 2% is fine. Mmmmmmm!

Now, you may be in the mood for something crustier than stovetop M&C. Turn on the oven, pour your cheesed-up macaroni into a casserole, and slide it in for a half hour or so. I did this the other night, adding a topping of crushed cracker crumbs and thinly sliced tomatoes. The heat of the oven dries out the tomato somewhat, concentrating the flavor. I borrowed that technique from my Mom, who used Italian bread crumbs as the topping, and added sauteed onions to the macaroni mixture. God, that was some good stuff! Between my brother and I, we could polish off a whole recipe of it.

Here's Alton Brown's version of Baked Mac & Cheese, for those of you who like to follow a recipe (also from the Food Network site).

1/2 pound elbow macaroni
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon powdered mustard
3 cups milk
1/2 cup yellow onion, finely diced
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 large egg
12 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Fresh black pepper
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup panko bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large pot of boiling, salted water cook the pasta to al dente.
While the pasta is cooking, in a separate pot, melt the butter. Whisk in the flour and mustard and keep it moving for about five minutes. Make sure it's free of lumps. Stir in the milk, onion, bay leaf, and paprika. Simmer for ten minutes and remove the bay leaf.

Temper in the egg. Stir in 3/4 of the cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Fold the macaroni into the mix and pour into a 2-quart casserole dish. Top with remaining cheese.

Melt the butter in a saute pan and toss the bread crumbs to coat. Top the macaroni with the bread crumbs. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and rest for five minutes before serving.

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