Nourish Your Soul: Baked Mac-n-Cheese
Oh what a treat I have for you today. My friend Eleana is one of the best cooks around and she is here today to share a special recipe. Eleana and her husband have a knack for entertaining and always prepare the most delectable dishes. Let's just say when we are lucky enough to get invited over for dinner, we are there with bells on! Eleana is the mama of this darling 11 month old boy and it's obvious that her love for cooking goes far beyond sustenance. It's her joy to shower those around her with delicious food that truly nourishes the soul. Without further adieu, here she is!
I know what you’re thinking: mac & cheese isn’t a health food, what is it doing here! That may be true, but I believe that there are times when it’s ok to push aside the greens and to feed your soul. On days when baby is sick or grumpy, when you’re tired of fighting with your toddler about eating the veggies, or when you just need some comfort, this recipe fits the bill. For me it’s not just that it is tasty and will feed an army (and freeze well!), it’s also that I take pleasure in the process of making it. I have made this recipe so many times that it has become second nature. I can lose myself in a type of meditative trance as I stir the white sauce with the wooden spoon and whisk: push and pull, push and pull, and round and round, and round and round. I love watching my utensils gliding through the sauce as it changes color and slowly thickens. Once the sauce is made I grate the cheese following a similar rhythm: up and down, up and down. I can really lose myself in the process and that is a beautiful thing. Cooking can be a way of meditating, and I hope that you will try this recipe with that in mind. If you continue to feel guilty about serving this dish, remember that mac & cheese pairs wonderfully with a simple green salad!
Baked Macaroni & Cheese
*adapted from Williams-Sonoma's Mastering Pasta, Noodles & Dumplings (2005)
Notes about the recipe: In my mind two ingredients make a good mac & cheese. First, good quality cheese. This doesn't mean you have to buy the most expensive, gourmet cheese out there, but the cheese has to be sharp and flavorful otherwise your macaroni will be bland. Plus, let's face it, it's not worth going through all of the trouble of making this dish from scratch if the end result is no more interesting than boxed mac & cheese. The second key ingredient I have found is nutmeg. Add a good pinch and it will liven-up the sauce.
2 cups whole milk
4 Tbsp. (2 oz.) unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/8 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg (I add closer to 1 tsp.)
1/8 tsp. freshly ground pepper (I add more)
1/2 lb. sharp Cheddar cheese freshly shredded (I usually use closer to 1 lb. because, why not!!)
1 lb elbow macaroni or small shells
2 Tbsp. bread crumbs (I usually use Panko bread crumbs for a crispier crust)
some Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for crust
To make the sauce: Heat the milk in a small, nonreactive saucepan over medium heat just until it is warm and bubbles appear along the edges of the pan, about 5 minutes. Watch the milk carefully to make sure it doesn't boil, burn or form a skin. (I normally just heat the milk in the microwave on low, again making sure not to get it too hot).
Place a heavy-bottomed, nonreactive saucepan over medium-low heat and add the butter. When the butter has melted, add the flour and stir well with a wooden spoon. At first the mixture will look lumpy, but continue to stir and adjust the heat as necessary to keep the mixture gently bubbling until the mixture is pale and ivory. (Cooking the mixture slowly helps the sauce thicken once the milk is added.) After 2 to 3 minutes the mixture will come together into a thick, smooth paste known as a roux. Remove the pan from the heat.
With the pan off the heat, begin stirring in the warm milk a tablespoon at a time using a whisk. The mixture will immediately become thick and lumpy. While whisking constantly, continue adding the milk, slowly starting to incorporate more and more milk at a time. As you stir, be sure to run the whisk along the bottom of the pan to ensure that the roux is evenly incorporated into the sauce.
Once all of the milk has been added, the sauce should have the consistency of thick cream. At this point switch back to the wooden spoon and stir in the salt. Place the saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until bubbles just begin breaking on the surface and the sauce is smooth and thick enough to coat the back of the spoon. Once it does bubble, let it gently simmer for an additional minute to remove the flour flavor. Be careful not to overcook or scorch the sauce.
Taste the sauce; it should taste creamy and neutral, with no trace of raw flour flavor. If despite your careful stirring, lumps are still visible in the sauce, pour it through a fine-mesh sieve.
While the sauce is still warm, add the cheese and stir until melted. Then add the nutmeg and pepper and adjust the seasoning to taste. (Remember that the flavor will mellow once you add the pasta, so you want the sauce to taste good plain).
Putting it all together: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and butter a 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking dish. Cook the pasta according to package directions (undercook it a little or it will get soggy after baking).
Strain the pasta and immediately add the sauce and mix. Scrape the mixture into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle the sauced pasta evenly with a good amount of Parmigiano-Reggiano and the breadcrumbs. Bake until the sauce is bubbling and the top is nicely browned, about 30 minutes.