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Friday, October 28, 2011

Fall Comfort Food Series: Macaroni & Cheese, Katie’s Way

I think most American’s would include some version of macaroni and cheese on their list of favorite comfort foods.  The mixture of tender noodles with creamy, gooey cheese is enough to make almost everyone melt. 

Please do not misunderstand me, not all mac and cheese recipes are created equal.  My grandmother’s recipe, for instance, leaves a lot to be desired.  Don’t get me wrong, my grandmother is a decent cook.  Her hamloaf is a specialty no one can touch, and her pie crust is a gift from the culinary gods.  But when it comes to macaroni and cheese, her’s is depressingly flavorless with mushy noodles.  The best part is the browned croutons on top, made from delicious gluten bakery bread. 

Grandma’s macaroni and cheese is boring and uninspired.  This can be contributed to her use of flavorless American cheese in her recipe.  Or worse yet, the dreaded “cheese food product”.  You all know the yellow log of imitation cheese found on store grocery shelves nationwide (not the refrigerated section where all proper cheese belongs) I’m referring to.  Sure, it melts beautifully and leaves a great texture to your macaroni and “cheese”.  But ladies and gents, IT ISN’T REALLY CHEESE.  This nuclear bunker staple should be limited to cooking when in an actual nuclear bunker, not in the safety of your own kitchen.  Whatever you do, however little time you have to make dinner, please PLEASE do not resort to using “cheese food product” in your macaroni and cheese!  I beg of you!!!  After all, your macaroni and cheese is only as good as the cheese you put in it.

When I was searching for a special recipe in the macaroni and cheese department, I came across this recipe from Ina Garten on the Food Network.  Her recipe has a wonderful flavor, but the sauce comes up a little dry and the noodles a little mushy for my tastes.  With a few tweaks to her recipe (doubling the sauce, tripling the cheese, undercooking the noodles during boiling, and replacing fresh breadcrumbs with crunchy buttered panko) I think I’ve found a new regular for our table. 

Yes, the cheese can be expensive making it prohibitive to make this dish on a regular basis, but please give this recipe a try at least for a special occasion.  You will be glad you did. 

Macaroni and cheese, Katie’s way (makes 2 large servings)
5 slices bacon
2 tablespoons salt
2 cups small shells or macaroni (I prefer the shells because they are like little cups for your cheese sauce, but you can use whatever you prefer or have on hand)

3 cups milk
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 ½ cup Gruyere cheese, grated
1 cup extra-sharp Cheddar, grated
¾ cup blue cheese, such as Roquefort, crumbled into pea sized pieces
Dash nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons butter
1 cup Panko breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 400°.

Bake the bacon.  Place a baking rack on a rimmed baking sheet and arrange the bacon in a single layer on the baking rack.  Bake bacon for 15-20 minutes, until the bacon is crisp.  Remove the pan carefully from the oven and transfer bacon to a plate lined with paper towels.  Once cooled, crumble bacon. 

Boil the noodles.  Bring large pot of water to a boil.  Once boiling, add the 2 tablespoons of salt to the water and the small shells.  Boil pasta for 3 minutes. (Don’t worry that the pasta is undercooked, it will soak up moisture from the sauce while baking in the oven.  This technique makes for al denté pasta in the finished product, rather than overcooked, mushy noodles.)  Drain well.

Make the béchamel sauce.  Without boiling, heat milk in small saucepan.  Melt the butter in a medium pot over medium heat and add the flour.  Whisking constantly, cook the flour and butter for two minutes.  Add the heated milk to the flour mixture and cook until thickened (without allowing milk and flour mixture to boil), several minutes.  Once heated thoroughly, remove the pan from the heat and stir in cheeses, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste.  Mix in your cooked pasta and crumbled bacon.  Pour into 2 individual size gratin dishes.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in microwave on high, about 30 seconds.  Immediately before baking mac and cheese, mix melted butter with panko (don’t do ahead of time or the panko will get soggy), stirring until the panko is well coated with butter.  Top mac and cheese with panko mixture and bake 35-40 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the panko is browned on the top.

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