This post was originally supposed to be called “Mac and Cheese, Three Ways” – but it was getting so long that I cut it in half (stay tuned for Part Two tomorrow). My sister and her husband had their first baby a couple months ago, and while I tried really hard to come up with some creative ideas for freezer meals, I had a difficult time getting past everyone’s favorite comfort food. So I decided if I couldn’t be original, I would be excessive instead: I stocked their freezer with, among other things, three different macaroni and cheese casseroles for the first few post baby months (they may have only lasted a few weeks). Number three was the one I was most excited about (more on that tomorrow), but I decided to start with a Barefoot Contessa classic. (Coincidentally, Ina’s new cookbook comes out today – it’s called “Make It Ahead” – and while I’m pretty excited about it, I’m not sure that there’s a better make ahead recipe than this mac and cheese).
Much like last week’s lasagna, I’m not sure that macaroni and cheese is fancy enough to warrant it’s own blog post. However, up until a couple years ago, my grandmother was the only person I knew of who made mac and cheese that wasn’t from a box (that list has now expanded to my grandmother, my friend Lindsay, and myself). So I’m posting this relatively basic recipe in the hopes of inspiring those of you who haven’t yet realized how easy and delicious homemade mac and cheese can be. Don’t be intimidated by the béchamel – it used to really scare me, but it’s so easy. SImply melt your butter, add some flour, pour in the milk, and whisk whisk whisk. It will take a few minutes to thicken up, but once it does you’ll feel like Julia Child. Add salt and pepper, and nutmeg to taste – I usually add whatever the recipe calls for (because I’m a rule follower), but I know a lot of people don’t care for nutmeg in a dish like this so feel free to use less or none at all.
Add the cheese to the béchamel while it’s still hot and let it melt. (If I could only give you one tip for making this recipe, it would be to buy your gruyère at Trader Joe’s – it’s literally half the price of any other store. A second tip would be to use Tillamook extra sharp for your cheddar, yum.) Combine pasta and sauce and scrape into your prepared baking dish. See, it’s really so simple. And so delicious – you’ll never make mac and cheese from a box again. Not that you ever did.
Ina wants you to make homemade bread crumbs – which are super easy, but I often don’t have bread on hand so I like to use good store bought breadcrumbs or panko. I like to toast mine on the stovetop beforehand (with a little olive oil or butter), but it’s not a necessary step by any means. If you want to make your breadcrumbs from scratch, cut the crusts off of five slices of bread (or a hunk of baguette) and process in the food processor until the pieces are the size of small crumbs (duh). Mix the crumbs with melted butter and then sprinkle on top of the casserole before baking. Casserole can be prepared ahead of time and then baked before serving, or baked and frozen for tired moms and dads to defrost and reheat as necessary.
One year ago: Crunchy Baked Pasta with Sausage (or Squash) and Greens
Mac and Cheese, previously: Melissa Clark’s Carroty Mac and Cheese
1 lb. elbow macaroni or cavatappi
1 quart milk (4 cups)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
1/2 cup all purpose flour
12 ounces gruyère, grated (4 cups)
8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar, grated (2 cups)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (or less, to taste)
4 small tomatoes, sliced (optional – I skipped this step)
1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs, fresh (5 slices bread, crusts removed) or store bought breadcrumbs or panko
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Drizzle olive oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add pasta and cook according to package directions (on the shorter side if they give you a range; you want the noodles al dente as they’ll continue to cook in the oven). Drain well.
Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan (don’t let it come to a boil). Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large (4 quart) pot and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, whisking constantly. While whisking, add hot milk (slowly) and cook for a minute or two more, until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, add the gruyère, cheddar, one tablespoon salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooked macaroni and stir well. Pour into a 3-quart baking dish. Arrange sliced tomatoes on top of pasta (if using). Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, combine with the fresh bread crumbs, and sprinkle on top (I like to melt the butter in a frying pan, add panko breadcrumbs, and toast before topping the casserole with them). Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until sauce is bubbling and casserole is browned on top.