Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Better Mac and Cheese

We celebrated a couple of birthdays here last night. It was a hodgepodge mix of food --trying to cook something each of them would like but even though the menu might be a weird mix, it was a fun evening. Shall I tell you what we had? Okay, we had a nice bowl of corned beef, cabbage and veggies for my daughter who was not able to have her favorite St Patrick’s day meal and this beloved Mac and cheese for our friend who likes cheese---a lot. For dessert, we had Matcha shortbread cookies, since Kaitlyn loves green tea and Chocolate cake. Although the combo won’t win any awards, we all thought it was quite a fine mix of flavors J

I would like to share the Mac and cheese recipe with you.  Please put out of your mind the neon box mix type of mac and cheese along with the flavorless glop that is sometimes the result of “homemade” mac and cheese recipes.  I happened upon this recipe a few years ago while watching one of my favorites on the food network—Ina Garten. I love her recipe and watching her cook makes me smile. Isn’t she just someone you would want to know?  Her recipe for Mac and cheese looked so delicious I had to try it. I have modified it a bit. For example, I do not buy the more expensive cheese, even though Gruyere would probably have an even nicer texture. I use less cheese and butter altogether. You could check out her recipe and use more but I am trying to cut some of the calories. Sorry my calorie counting friends. This is not a diet friendly dish. As usual, I added more spices, which can be modified to your taste.

I think the things that make this Mac and Cheese stand out are the flavor and texture of the dish. The cheese is the star here and using Swiss or Gruyere and sharp or extra sharp cheddar make all the difference! Please try it with the sharper cheese and see what I mean. The spices also help make this special. For us, the tomatoes are also central to making this Mac & cheese spectacular. They bake up so sweet and creamy—a wonderful way to eat tomato! The crispy topping  adds an awesome layer of texture. Have you used panko before?  You might need to look in the Asian food section of your market but it is well worth a search. It holds it’s crunch better than anything and I use it in all my bread crumb recipes. If you can’t find panko or you prefer, Ritz crackers are also a flavorful, crunchy topping. Plus, it is fun to put them in a baggie and crush them to bits.

A note on the spices used. You will find Nutmeg in Ina’s original recipe and here. Nutmeg is a super spice. Used in small quantities, nutmeg brings out wonderful qualities in cream sauces! Freshly grated nutmeg is really the best and whole  keeps well, too.  I add it to pumpkin, butternut squash and any dish with a cream base- pasta recipes, desserts, and soups. Try it. I also add a bit of smoked paprika but not too much. Just a hint gives this recipe a complex flavor we enjoy but you may substitute regular paprika if you prefer. I like the color with paprika and using spice to improve the appearance of a dish is a nice cooking trick. Turmeric and paprika can warm up the look of food.

Most recipes I will share here are basically original- well, as original as a recipe can be since I am sure someone else has come up with most of the same combinations before me. But, I wanted to share this slightly modified  recipe as it is very worth repeating. I am a new blogger so I hope I have cited it correctly and all.

Mac and Cheese                                                              Serves about 8-10
Modified from recipe by Ina Garten

1 pound elbow macaroni or cavatappi—whole wheat is a good choice
Olive oil, Kosher salt
4- 4 1/2 cups milk ( low fat works fine)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2-2 1/2 cups Swiss or Swiss/ Gruyere blend, grated
1 ½ -2 ½  cups sharp or extra-sharp Cheddar, grated
1 teaspoon each freshly ground black pepper, onion powder
1/2 teaspoon  each fresh ground nutmeg, thyme, garlic powder, smoked paprika
3 teaspoons salt
3 ripe tomatoes
1 1/2 cups Panko breadcrumbs or Ritz crackers, crushed
2 Tablespoons butter

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Drizzle oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add the macaroni and cook according to the directions on the package, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain well.
Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan or in a bowl in the microwave, but don't boil it. Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large (4-quart) pot and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring with a whisk. While whisking or stirring constantly, add the hot milk and spices, seasonings and cook for a few minutes until thickened, smooth and just beginning to bubble. Be sure to keep stirring all the way through to the bottom of the pot. Once velvety and thickening up a bit, remove from the heat, and add the Swiss, Cheddar. Add the cooked macaroni and stir well. Pour into a 3-quart buttered or oiled baking dish.
Thinly slice the tomatoes and arrange on top. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, combine them with the cracker or panko breadcrumbs, and sprinkle on the top. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and it  is lightly browned on the top.

Modified from original recipe by Barefoot Contessa ,Family Style Copyright, 2002,

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