Mac and cheese, the ultimate comfort food…there’ s something about that combination of melted cheese and pasta that takes us all back to our individual childhoods. Whether your mom made it from a box or from scratch didn’t really matter…the end result was always yummy and fun to eat.
My mother, who was an excellent cook and baker of mostly Jewish cuisine, had her own no fuss way of preparing it. She cooked the little elbow macaroni, drained it, put it back in the pot, and covered it with slices of American cheese to melt. A quick stir and done! A bowlful of that with a glass of chocolate milk was always a welcome lunch.
I made it for my kids that same way for many years. Gourmet? No, but delicious, just the same. Remember, my mom was a great Jewish cook…she didn’t know from a bechamel sauce.
Through the years I have expanded my repertoire of mac and cheese recipes. A good basic one which I like comes from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. I like to vary the cheeses, and use a combination of different pastas that will really allow themselves to be draped in that gooey, cheesy sauce. Cellantani, rotini, penne, and shells to name a few.
A combination of cheeses that I particularly like is Vermont White Cheddar, Asiago, and Monterey Jack, but the variety is endless as long as you choose a good melting cheese. Others include Gruyere, Mozzarella, Cheddar, and Jarlsberg.
This time, however, I happened to have a large bag in my fridge of a Mexican blend of cheeses including Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Asadero, and Queso Quesadilla, all good melting cheeses.
I decided it could make a pretty good mac and cheese…and it did!
So here’s the basic recipe from The New Basics, but remember to be creative with your pastas and cheeses…it’s all good!
MACARONI AND CHEESE
1 pound penne (or a combination of pastas)
4 cups milk
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
6 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon paprika
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
12 ounces, Gruyere cheese, grated (4 cups) (or combination of your choice of cheeses)
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the penne and cook at a rolling boil until just tender. Drain, rinse under cold water, drain again and set aside in a large bowl.
2. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.
3. Bring the milk just to a boil in a heavy saucepan and set aside.
4. Meanwhile, melt the butter in another heavy saucepan. Add the flour, and whisk over low heat for 5 minutes. Do not brown. Remove from the heat.
5. Add the hot milk to the flour mixture, and whisk well. Add 1/2 teaspoon of paprika, with salt and pepper, and return the pan to the heat. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until the mixture thickens, 5 minutes. Add to the penne, and toss well to coat the penne completely.
6. Butter a 13x9x2 inch flameproof baking dish, and fill it evely with the penne and sauce.
7. Distribute the grated cheese evenly over the penne, and sprinkle with black pepper and additional paprika.
8. Place the dish on a baking sheet, and bake until hot, 20-25 minutes.
9. Place the dish under the broiler, 4 inches from the heat, until the top is slightly golden, 3-4 minutes. Serve immediately.
If you wish, add fresh shavings of Parmesan to the top of the casserole before you run it under the broiler.
Note: This is a great dish to serve a crowd because the recipe can easily be doubled or tripled.
Remember when cooking different types of pasta to use a very large stock pot, and add the pasta to the boiling water sequentially beginning with the one requiring the most cooking. They will most likely have different cooking times. For example when I made this the cellantani took 11 minutes, the shells took 8 minutes, and the rotini 7 minutes.