Macaroni and cheese

A comfort food staple is mixed and matched with surprising ingredients to produce mouthwatering results.

mac and cheese 311 (photo credit: Brian Corn/Wichita Eagle/MCT)
mac and cheese 311
(photo credit: Brian Corn/Wichita Eagle/MCT)
A warm, hearty pasta casserole flavored with cheese is one of America’s favorite comfort foods. According to Laura Werlin, author of the just-published Mac & Cheese, Please!, “In any given three-month period, approximately one third of the United States population will eat macaroni and cheese at least once.”
When I was growing up, my mother made macaroni and cheese with a white sauce of milk and flour and baked it with a topping of crumbled cornflakes and bite-size squares of bright orange American cheese. I loved it. Her pasta-and-cheese kugel was a variation of macaroni and cheese; instead of a white sauce, it had cottage cheese and beaten eggs mixed with cooked noodles or macaroni, and was flavored with fried onions and sometimes sauteed mushrooms.
These casseroles were satisfying, and yet they were not exceedingly high in fat like some restaurant recipes that call for a pound or more of cheese for every pound of pasta.
Although cheddar is the most popular cheese for making the dish in the US, Werlin points out that almost any cheese can be used, including fresh goat cheese and creamy Brie. When preparing new versions of macaroni and cheese, Werlin might add nuts, vegetables, olives and even gin.
A key to making good macaroni and cheese, writes Werlin, is to make a sauce of the right consistency – thick but pourable. This demands patience, as you need to stir the sauce over relatively low heat and wait until it thickens. (See recipe below.) Werlin’s vegetable-flavored casseroles are the ones that appeal to me the most. In one of them, she mixes sautéed leeks, mozzarella and blue cheeses and chopped toasted hazelnuts into the macaroni and its cream sauce. For her eggplant Parmesan mac and cheese, she layers a creamy mozzarella-flavored macaroni mixture with breaded fried eggplant and tomato sauce, and bakes the casserole with a sprinkling of pecorino cheese. Her Indian-spiced macaroni and cheese has spinach, roasted cauliflower and garam masala, an Indian spice blend.
Rachael Ray, author of My Year in Meals, uses vegetable sauces to moisten the macaroni. For her Mexican style macaroni and cheese, she purees medium-hot peppers with onions, garlic and cilantro, cooks the puree in white sauce and combines the sauce with cooked penne (diagonal-cut macaroni), sautéed mushrooms and corn kernels. To make pumpkin-cheddar macaroni and cheese, she cooks pumpkin puree and beer in white sauce and flavors it with mustard, cloves, honey and sharp cheddar cheese. Her Italian-inspired vegetable sauce has fennel cooked in butter and olive oil with onion and garlic, as well as white wine, vegetable stock, milk and flour; it’s enriched with fontina and Parmesan cheese and combined with cooked macaroni.
Even fruit can be used in mac and cheese. For breakfast macaroni and cheese, Werlin adds chopped dried figs and toasted almonds to the pasta and combines it with a sauce flavored with mascarpone and blue cheeses, honey and rosemary.
Pasta that’s easy to prepare is a dish from Joe Famularo’s new book, Viva La Cucina Italiana (written with Cristopher Laus). It’s a slightly sweet macaroni and cheese with a simple sauce of fresh ricotta whipped with warm milk, sugar and cinnamon; the sauce is mixed with cooked penne and the dish is served sprinkled with cinnamon and chopped chives.
When it comes to choosing milk, Werlin’s advice is “go for the fullest-fat choices that your waistline (and/or conscience) will allow.” Most of her recipes call for a combination of milk and cream, as well as salted butter. For Werlin, the ultimate comfort food is mascarpone-enriched macaroni and cheese served with wedges of a grilled cheese sandwich.
It’s not surprising that Werlin’s bio specifies that “when she’s not eating cheese or cooking with it, she can usually be found jogging on the streets of San Francisco.”CLASSIC MAC & CHEESE This recipe is from Mac & Cheese, Please!.
Author Laura Werlin writes: “This is a classic mac & cheese in every way but it includes onion. I like the sweetness the onions add, but if you prefer, simply leave them out.”
Werlin calls for Gruyere cheese but you can substitute Swiss or other grating cheeses. If you want a more colorful casserole, see the arugula and roasted pepper variations at the end of the recipe.
Makes 6 servings
1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp kosher salt 225 gr. (8 ounces) small elbow macaroni 70 gr. (5 Tbsp.) salted butter, plus more for the baking dish 2 cups coarse, fresh bread crumbs (preferably homemade) 55 gr. (2 ounces) Parmesan (Parmigiano- Reggiano) or Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated (about 1 cup) 3⁄4 cup finely diced onion (about 1⁄2 medium onion) 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour 2 cups whole or reduced-fat milk 1 cup heavy cream 170 gr. (6 ounces) medium or aged cheddar cheese, preferably orange, coarsely grated (2 cups) 170 gr. (6 ounces) Gruyere cheese, coarsely grated (2 cups) 1⁄2 tsp. mustard powder 1⁄4 tsp. cayenne pepper 1⁄8 tsp. ground or freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 190ºC (375ºF). Butter a 20- cm. (8-inch) square (11⁄2-liter or 11⁄2-quart) baking dish or pan (or six 250-ml. or 8-ounce ramekins).
Fill a 4- to 5-liter (4- to 5-quart) pot about three quarters full with water and add 1 Tbsp. of the salt.
Bring to a boil and add the pasta. Cook, stirring once or twice, until tender but firm, about 4 minutes, and drain. Reserve the pot.
While the pasta is cooking, in a medium skillet, melt 2 Tbsp. of the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Turn off the heat and add the bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese. Stir until mixed well. Set aside.
Using the same pot you used to cook the pasta, melt the remaining 3 Tbsp. butter over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Slowly whisk in the flour and stir constantly until the onion is coated with the flour, 30 to 45 seconds. Continue stirring for about 2 minutes more, or until the mixture starts to darken slightly and smell a bit nutty. Slowly whisk in the milk, cream and the remaining 1 tsp. salt and cook until the mixture is just beginning to thicken and bubble around the edges, 5 to 7 minutes.
It should be similar in texture to cake batter. If it’s soupy, continue cooking until it thickens.
Add 11⁄2 cups of the cheddar, the Gruyere, mustard powder, cayenne and nutmeg and stir until the cheeses have melted and the sauce is smooth but not too runny. Again, it should be similar in texture to cake batter. If it’s soupy, continue cooking, stirring constantly, until it thickens.
Add the pasta and stir to combine. Pour into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with the remaining 1⁄2 cup of cheddar and top with the bread-crumb mixture. Place the dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until bubbling and golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving.
Optional add-ins: Arugula: Add 6 cups, a handful at a time, after the cheeses have been added and the sauce is smooth, and/or Roasted red peppers: Add 3⁄4 cup coarsely chopped peppers from a jar along with the pasta
This colorful, easy-to-prepare pasta casserole is flavored with cottage cheese, a little sour cream and plenty of fresh vegetables. Adding the eggs helps it hold together.
Makes 4 main-course or 6 side-dish servings
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil 1 to 2 Tbsp. butter, or additional olive oil 2 sweet red bell peppers, or 1 red and 1 yellow or green pepper, diced 1 medium onion, minced 2 celery stalks, cut in thin slices (optional) 1 carrot, peeled and grated 2 medium-sized white squash (kishuim in Hebrew), zucchini or yellow squash, unpeeled, coarsely grated Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 2 cups small elbow macaroni (about 225 gr. or 8 ounces) 3 large eggs 2⁄3 cup creamy cottage cheese 1⁄4 cup sour cream 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley (optional)1 tsp. dried thyme 3⁄4 tsp. paprika 1⁄4 tsp. hot pepper sauce, or to taste
Preheat oven to 205ºC (400ºF). Remove seeds and ribs from peppers; cut in small dice. Heat oil and butter in a large skillet. Add onion and saute over medium heat until beginning to turn golden, about 5 minutes. Add celery and saute 5 minutes. Add peppers and saute 3 minutes. Add carrot, squash, salt and pepper. Stir and saute over high heat about 3 minutes or until all vegetables are just tender.
Cook macaroni uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes or until nearly tender but firmer than usual, since pasta will be baked.
Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well. Transfer to a large bowl.
Whisk eggs in a medium bowl until just blended.
Whisk in cottage cheese and sour cream. Stir in parsley, thyme, 1⁄4 tsp paprika and hot pepper sauce. Add mixture to macaroni and toss. Add vegetables and toss. Mixture should be generously seasoned.
Transfer to a buttered shallow 6-cup baking dish. Sprinkle with remaining 1⁄2 tsp. paprika and bake for 25 minutes or until firm. Let stand 5 minutes before serving. Serve from the baking dish.
Faye Levy is the author of
Sensational Pasta.