Well, it finally happened! After weeks of being spoiled by above normal temperatures here in the Northeast, winter finally arrived in the form of 5 inches of snow last weekend. Right about now some comfort food would be soothing, and I can't think of anything more comforting than a plate of creamy Mac & Cheese. I present two amazing versions below. The first is a quick, delicious, one pot wonder, easy to make for a weeknight-after-work dinner (if you splurge on pre-grated cheese, it's virtually as quick as the powdered stuff in the blue box and SO much tastier!). The second recipe is a more refined version suitable for an elegant dinner party. It's slightly more involved, but well worth the effort. Serve either version with a crisp green salad to complete the meal. I'm feeling better already!
Just an aside; I recently ordered Mac & Cheese for dinner at a chain restaurant. I ate only half of it, more because I was afraid of the calorie count than because I was too full to eat the whole portion. When I got home, I pulled up the nutrition info on the restaurant's web site and was shocked to see a calorie count of 1000 calories. OK, I thought to myself--I only ate half of it, so the damage isn't TOO bad. Then I noticed the tiny print where it indicated that what was served was considered TWO portions!!!!! First, I don't know many people who order a plate at a restaurant to share--to me the fun of eating out is that everyone can order exactly what he or she desires at the moment without compromise. Second, I am hard pressed to figure out exactly what they could have done to the dish to inflate it to 2000 calories!!!! If my iPad calorie counter is to be believed, the Everyday Macaroni & Cheese recipe below yields 4 hearty portions at approximately 700 calories per person. Obviously not diet food, but less than half the calories of the restaurant version and, frankly, a whole lot tastier! I'm just saying.....
Everyday Macaroni & Cheese
5 cups water
1 tsp. salt
pinch each paprika, ground cayenne pepper, & white pepper
1 lb. elbow macaroni
4 Tbs. butter
2 cups grated extra sharp cheddar cheese
4 Tbs. milk
Bring the water, salt, paprika, cayenne pepper and white pepper to a boil in an 8 quart saucepan over high heat. Add elbow macaroni and reduce heat to very low. Simmer about 8 to 10 minutes stirring frequently until macaroni is al denté. Turn off heat and stir in butter, cheddar cheese and milk until cheese is melted.
Notes & Pointers:
This recipe seems like it can’t possibly work because you start with a measured amount of water for the pasta and don’t drain it at the end, but it really does work. It’s delicious!
Three-Cheese Pasta Gratin
Serves: 4 to 6
Oven Temperature: 400°
3 Tbs. butter
1 garlic clove, grated or minced
3 Tbs. all purpose flour
4 cups milk
10 oz. extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated (about 3 cups)
8 oz. hot pepper Monterey Jack cheese, grated (about 2-1/2 cups)
1-2/3 cups grated Romano cheese, divided
1 tsp. hot pepper sauce, or to taste
1/2 cup whole almonds
1/4 cup fine dry breadcrumbs
1 lb. short cut pasta (such as cavatapi, rotelli or penne)
Melt butter in heavy 4 quart saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic; sauté until just fragrant, about 1 minute (don’t allow it to brown!). Reduce heat to low and add flour; stir 1 minute. Gradually whisk in milk. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly. Cover partially; simmer until sauce thickens slightly, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat. Add cheddar and Jack cheese, 1-1/3 cups Romano cheese (reserve remaining 1/3 cup Romano cheese) and hot pepper sauce. Whisk until sauce is smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover; chill. Whisk over very low heat to rewarm before using.)
Preheat oven to 400°F. Generously butter bottom and sides of 13” x 9” x 2” baking dish. Blend remaining 1/3 cup Romano, almonds and breadcrumbs in food processor until nuts are coarsely ground. Add 1/2 cup almond mixture to prepared dish. Tilt dish to coat bottom and sides. Return any loose almond mixture to processor. Cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender. Drain well. Return pasta to pot. Add sauce; stir to coat. Transfer to prepared baking dish. Sprinkle remaining almond mixture evenly over pasta.
Bake until almond mixture is golden and crunchy and sauce bubbles, about 30 minutes. Cool on rack 5 minutes.
Notes & Pointers:
Don’t be concerned if it looks like there is way too much sauce for the pasta. It all works out in the end! Once it’s baked, the pasta absorbs lots of the sauce. As far as the amount of hot sauce, you can use less or even none and just pass the bottle of hot sauce at the table for those who like everything 5 alarm!