I’m not a soothsayer, nor do I necessarily believe the world’s most famous groundhog weather forecaster, Punxsutawney Phil. However, I would bet that this uncommonly harsh winter has more bone-chilling days in store for us. What better reason is there to cook up a simple casserole of noodles and cheese sauce with a crispy topping? This dish always perks up my family and friends on the coldest and dreariest of days.
Mac and cheese has all the components of feel-good food — cheesy, creamy and familiar. And it never seems to go out of style. Many restaurants are making upscale versions, adding lobster, truffles or other exotic ingredients. I actually prefer my Seriously Simple version of this well-loved classic. As long as you use this cheese combination, there will be no complaints. The key to a great mac and cheese is making sure you have enough cheese in the sauce and that there is enough sauce to generously envelop the macaroni. If you want, you could throw in diced cooked chicken, turkey, ham, shrimp or even a handful of cooked vegetables. I tend to be a purist and enjoy savoring the pure, creamy cheesiness with the slightly al dente noodles.
Combining cheddar cheese with spicy, peppery Monterey Jack cheese and a touch of Parmesan elevates this mac and cheese into a sophisticated dish — a far cry from the “Blue Box” variety. The crispy cheese and breadcrumb topping add a textural contrast that I appreciate. This is a perfect one-dish meal served along with a mixed-green salad.
Tips on mac and cheese:
• Advance preparation: This may be made up to 2 days ahead, covered and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before reheating in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes. You may need to cover the dish with foil so the mac and cheese does not burn.
• Use Italian penne or fusilli instead of elbow macaroni.
• Substitute blue cheese for the pepper jack cheese.
Fallback Macaroni and Cheese
Butter for pan
1 tablespoon salt
3 cups dried macaroni (about 3/4
pound large elbow macaroni)
1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups milk or half-and-half, warmed
2 1/2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 cups shredded pepper jack cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup breadcrumbs (Japanese panko crumbs are my preference)
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into tiny pieces
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease an 8-inch square or a 9- by 11-inch (preferably glass) baking pan.
Bring a large saucepan of water to a rapid boil, and add the salt. Add the macaroni and stir to separate, then cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until slightly soft to the bite, or according to package directions, stirring occasionally. Drain and place in bowl. Toss with oil to avoid the pasta sticking together, and reserve.
In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Sprinkle the flour over the butter, and whisk to mix well. Cook, stirring all the time, for about 2 minutes or until the flour is well absorbed and the mixture is gently bubbling and golden. Add the warm milk gradually, continuing to stir all the time, and bring the sauce to a simmer on medium heat. Continue to cook until the white sauce is smooth and slightly thickened, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the cheddar, Parmesan and pepper jack cheeses. Remove from the heat, and whisk constantly until the cheese is completely melted. Stir in the salt, pepper and mustard. Taste for seasoning. Add the macaroni, and mix to combine.
Place the greased baking dish on a baking sheet. Transfer the macaroni mixture to the dish. For the topping: In a small bowl, combine the cheeses with the breadcrumbs and mix to evenly combine. Sprinkle on top of the macaroni in an even layer. Dot with the butter, and bake uncovered for about 35 to 40 minutes or until the top is bubbling, beginning to form a crust and is golden brown. Be very careful not to let the crumbs burn. Let the dish stand for at least 10 minutes before serving.
Diane Rossen Worthington is an authority on new American cooking. She is the author of 18 cookbooks, including Seriously Simple Holidays, and is also a James Beard award-winning radio-show host. Contact her at www.seriouslysimple.com.