Monday, August 19, 2013

I know it's only Mac & Cheese but I like it!

Here’s a dish that almost everyone loves to eat, and most people have some favorite version of that they tell stories about. Maybe a recipe that belongs to a mother, aunt or grandma, or a restaurant that serves up a unique rendition. There is no doubt that macaroni and cheese is a quintessential comfort food, and when I spot a creative take on this classic dish on a menu, I usually can’t help myself from putting in an order. 

When it comes to making macaroni and cheese at home, many people reach for the familiar “blue box” and don’t venture much further. I don’t criticize what other people like to eat – to each his or her own. But for me, I don’t think it takes too much effort to make a really creamy, rich and flavorful macaroni and cheese from scratch.  You just need the right ingredients and a little extra time. 

This is my “standard” recipe. From this recipe I vary it based on what I have on-hand and my mood. On this day, I wanted something a little spicy, so I added jalapeno peppers. Other times, I have added crumbled cooked bacon or diced ham, frozen peas or lima beans, crab or lobster meat, or just more cheeses.  That’s part of the adventure and fun of cooking!

Macaroni and Cheese

3 TBSP butter
3 TBSP flour
2 ½ cups milk
2-3 bay leaves
1 pound of pasta (use something with a ridge, curl or opening for the cheese sauce to cling to)
1 ½ - 2 cups grated cheddar cheese
½ cup grated mozzarella cheese
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ tsp. dry mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh bread crumbs (optional)
2-3 TBSP diced jalapeno peppers (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cook pasta as directed and drain.

Place milk and bay leaves in a medium sauce pan over low heat and gradually bring the milk up to “scalding” – this is when little bubbles will form around the edge of the pan and you will see steam come off the top of the milk. At this point take milk off heat.

In a large sauce pan over medium heat, melt butter and then add the flour. Using a whisk, stir flour continuously until the mixture (called a “roux”) becomes brownish in color and will start to smell nutty. Gradually add the warm milk (removing the bay leaves) to the roux and continue to stir with whisk making sure that the mixture stays smooth. 

After all the milk is added, continue to stir until the mixture shows signs of boiling – it should have thickened up at this point. Remove from heat. Add dry mustard, cheeses and jalapeno peppers and gently stir until all the cheeses are melted and well combined. 

Place cooked pasta in a large bowl – or if you don’t have one, add the pasta to the large sauce pan containing the cheese sauce. Either way, put the pasta and the sauce together and gently mix (I use a rubber spatula) until all the pasta is coated. Place mixture into a 9x13 baking dish that has been coated with non-stick spray.

Top with bread crumbs (if using) and place in oven until the bread crumbs are nicely browned and mixture is bubbly, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven and give it a few minutes to cool down. Serve and enjoy!

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