Bragging Rights

My friend did come over yesterday, and we had a lovely time playing with the girls. They were all very well-behaved and had loads of fun. I’m glad she called. Who cares about whether the house is clean? In retrospect, it seems so silly to worry about such things.

Since I was not obsessing over the lack of cleanliness in my home, I managed to whip up a casserole of homemade macaroni and cheese before company arrived. Of course, I make it from scratch because I’m all about the avoiding-chemicals-and-preservatives-for-the-kids when it comes to food. But it just so happens to taste absolutely and sinfully delicious. Nice bonus.

My pal M must be from New Zealand, because she gushed about how good lunch was and how much she liked the mac & cheese. She ate her whole slab in no time. She even ate seconds. I think she would have eaten thirds, but maybe felt a little self conscious about eating so much. (Me? I ate my third helping after she left.) It could have been my imagination, though, but I’m pretty sure I saw her scarf down the last bite of her daughter’s portion when we cleared the table.

Of course, M went on about how complicated and tedious and difficult it must have been to make homemade macaroni and cheese. I think she was trying to compliment me by making it sound like I had accomplished some amazing Kraft® -like feat of kitchen wizardry. But it’s really not hard to do. It also doesn’t take a whole lot longer to make the homemade stuff than the boxed-up kind, especially if you already have things like pasta, cheese, milk and butter on hand. So, if you want bragging rights – and a healthy homemade version of this kids’ favorite, give this recipe a try.

(By the way, and to give credit where credit is due, the dish I make is based on the mac & cheese recipe from Food to Live By: The Earthbound Farm Organic Cookbook.)

You’ll need*:

  • 1 1/2 – 2 cups (150-200 g) uncooked smallish pasta (elbows, shells, etc)
  • Water and a decent sized pot to cook the pasta in
  • Another smallish pot to make your cheese sauce
  • 2 T butter (30 g)
  • 2 T flour (15 g)
  • A few sprinkles of dry mustard
  • Salt (kosher is best) and pepper (freshly ground, if you can)
  • About 2 cups /225 g of your favorite cheese(s), grated**
  • 1 1/2 cups (355 ml) whole milk, preferrably organic
  • Another cup / 115 g or so of a mild, nice melting cheese like Emmentaler, yogurt cheese, Fontina, etc.
  • 1/2 cup (115 ml) half-and-half
  • generous 1/2 cup (55 g) bread crumbs
  • generous 1/2 cup (50-55 g) grated Parmesan cheese
  • A buttered casserole dish to bake this in. I use an 8″ square x 2″ deep pan, or a 7″ x 11″.
  • A 375° F / 190° C oven.

* Since my entire readership is based in New Zealand, I added metric measurements. Hope they’re right. Please don’t sue if they’re not, as I’m a stupid American who doesn’t know better. We still measure things according to some bizarre system based on barleycorns that absolutely no one else in the world uses. But that’s perfectly fine, because we’re Americans, and what do we care what the rest of the world is doing?

**For the cheese, I used a bunch of odd bits that were hanging out in our cheese drawer: a small amount of white cheddar, some yogurt cheese, and a little Gouda. Any mild cheese that melts well should work here. I would avoid distinctly flavored cheeses like Feta or pepper Jack. You can also cheat and just use packaged shredded cheese, though you should note that manufacturers often add different things to pre-shredded cheeses to keep them from clumping up and getting nasty. If you’re going to make this really homemade and yummy, grate it yourself.

On with the magic-making. Put your pot of pasta-cooking water on to boil. While it’s doing that, get your smaller pot out and put it on a very low heat with just the butter in it. Slowly melt the butter. Once it starts to foam a little, sprinkle the flour over it and mix it in well. Keep moving your spoon or whisk quickly to keep the roux (yep, that’s what you’re making) from burning. You can turn the heat up slightly, but keep the butter/flour moving.

Add a couple shakes of dry mustard powder, a pinch of salt, and a grind or two of pepper. Keep stirring the pot. Cook this on a low or medium flame until it starts to smell good, about a minute or two. All you are trying to do is cook the flour enough to get rid of the “floury” taste. Now slowly pour on the milk. Keep stirring. Cook for a couple of minutes until the milk starts to thicken. Dump in the first two cups of cheese. Stir this well until the cheese is all melty. Now, give it a taste. (Be careful, it will be hot!) You might need to add more cheese, more salt, whatever. Adjust the flavors to your taste and then turn off the heat.

Meanwhile, cook your pasta noodles. I let the pasta cook about 7 or 8 minutes until al dente. When it’s done, drain the pasta and put it back in the pot. Pour in the cheese sauce and stir well to coat all the noodles with that creamy yummyness. Now, pour your mac & cheese into the casserole dish and spread it out evenly. Take your second batch of cheese, that other cup or so. Sprinkle it over the pasta, and then drizzle the whole thing with the half and half. Combine the bread crumbs and Parmesan and then sprinkle them over the top of the whole shebang. Put it in the oven, uncovered, for about 20 minutes until the topping is browned and everything looks ooey-gooey and yummy.

Now, you can save time by skipping the casserole step. Just add a little extra cheese to the cheese sauce (maybe increase it by half) and mix it all up well with the pasta in a pot. It will still beat the boxed versions, hands-down. But nothing can touch baked mac & cheese with a crunchy brown bread-crumb topping. Nothing.

I realize that this seems complicated. That’s because I’m a long-winded oddball who likes describing recipes in the utmost detail. In reality, you will probably finish cooking the cheese sauce before your pasta water even gets to a boil, making this a relatively quick dish. And even if it was difficult (which it’s not), it’s so worth it.

By the way: a trick to save time is to keep a small plastic freezer bag on your freezer door (or near the front, wherever it’s accessible). When you have bread that is slightly stale, or you have a bunch of those leftover heels that no one wants to eat, pulse them for a bit in the food processor, then stick the breadcrumbs into the freezer bag. They will keep quite a while in the freezer, and you don’t even have to thaw them out to use in recipes. Perfect for mac & cheese, or meatloaf, or… well, for whatever you need breadcrumbs for.


4 thoughts on “Bragging Rights

  1. my new cookbook (y’know, that celebrity one my well-meaning M-I-L got me) suggests adding a bit of pureed cauliflower or butternut squash (about a half cup in her recipe; I’d add more to your {infinitely better} recipe, 3/4 c to 1 c based on consistency) to your homemade mac & cheese to sneak in some veggies for picky eaters. Not that you have that problem…I’ve never seen DD1 or DD2 turn their noses up at anything you make. And rightfully so. Yum.

  2. Your non-New Zealand readership appreciates your prompt follow-up report. As you may know there are certain of us that get kinda cranky when you leave us hanging. And I want lemon bars. It’s your fault.

  3. Lucy: I’m of the opinion that some things are sacred and should not be defiled with vegetables other ingredients.

    Lisa: Happy to oblige. And yes, the lemon bars are wonderful, but don’t thank me. Thank that woman over at Smitten Kitchen who makes all the food porn.

    Sarah: xxx to you, too, dearie!

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