Mac and Cheese, Part Two

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As discussed yesterday, I went on a bit of a mac and cheese bender a few months ago when I was preparing freezer meals for my sister (in preparation for the arrival of her first baby/my first nephew). Beecher’s is an artisan cheese shop that originated in Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, and I might have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with their cheeses.  They also happen to make a really amazing mac and cheese, which is called “Beecher’s ‘World’s Best’ Mac and Cheese.” A pretty bold assertion, but even if it’s not the best it’s definitely in the running.

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Beecher’s mac and cheese is traditionally made with their “flagship” cheese – clearly I’m not a connoisseur, but I would describe it as similar to a sharp white cheddar.  I was snacking on their peppery “marco polo” during a wine and cheese night this past summer when I had an epiphany – why not make Beecher’s mac and cheese with marco polo in place of the flagship? It’s basically just a creamy, mild white cheese with green and black peppercorns – I think of it mostly as black pepper cheese, but there’s green in there too. Beecher’s makes a couple other varieties aside from the flagship (smoked, mariachi, chicken, pork), but they have not come out with a marco polo version – no idea why not, but as soon as I thought of it I became convinced it would be the most delicious thing ever.  Contrary to what it probably looks like based upon this blog, I actually don’t make/eat mac and cheese all that often (unless you count the frozen “reduced guilt” Trader Joe’s frozen kind) – and neither does my sister. But I figured if there’s ever a time when you can eat “full guilt” mac and cheese with no guilt (or at least, less guilt), it’s after you’ve given birth.  Plus, what better way to celebrate the arrival of the world’s best baby than with the world’s best mac and cheese?!?

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So I set about to make two casseroles, a traditional (flagship) and a black pepper (marco polo). Again, the recipe is pretty simple. Cook some pasta, make a quick béchamel, grate a ton of cheese and melt it into the sauce, toss the sauce with the pasta, top with more cheese, and bake. The traditional recipe calls for chili powder in both the sauce and on top of the casserole; I wasn’t sure that the chili powder would go with the black pepper so I omitted it from the second casserole. Aside from that, my only recipe “tweak” was to use the marco polo in lieu of the flagship in both the sauce and in the topping. Flagship cheese is pretty easy to find these days – it’s sold at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s (for a lot cheaper!) even outside of Seattle.  Marco Polo might be a little trickier – I’ve been able to find it at QFC and New Seasons in Portland, but I’m not sure if you would be able to find it anywhere else outside of Seattle or NYC (go here if you find yourself in the Flatiron district and in need of a good happy hour). Beecher’s will ship it to you – though for the shipping charges, I would just get the flagship at Trader Joe’s and call it good. The marco polo is good, but I have a hard time paying more for shipping than the cost of the actual item. If you can get your hands on it, though, please make this and let me know your thoughts – I really think I’m onto something.

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While I prefer to use pretty bakeware (and use this blog as an excuse to buy a lot of it), I think one of the nicest things you can do when bringing meals to new parents (or anyone in need of a meal) is to bring everything in disposable dishes so that they don’t have to worry about returning anything. So in that vein, please excuse these lovely tin foil casserole dishes. I might have considered using nicer dishes since these were for my sister (and therefore more likely that I could demand them back), but I didn’t want to be without two casserole dishes while they sat in the freezer for months.  Turns out they were eaten quickly enough that I wouldn’t have missed them.

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One year ago: Pumpkin Muffins 

Mac and Cheese, previously: Part One, Carrot

Beecher’s “World’s Best” Mac & Cheese 

Serves 4

Sauce

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 /2 cups whole milk
7 ounces Flagship cheese (about 1 3/4 cups), grated (for the black pepper option, use Marco Polo in place of Flagship)
1 ounce Just Jack (about 1/4 cup), grated (if you can’t find Beecher’s, any Jack will do)
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt, such as kosher
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chipotle chili powder* (for black pepper version, omit the chili powder)
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

Pasta

6 ounces penne pasta (about 3 1/4 cups)
1 ounce (1/4 cup) Flagship cheese, grated  (for the black pepper option, use Marco Polo in place of Flagship)
1 ounce (1/4 cup) Just Jack cheese, grated
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chipotle chili powder* (for black pepper version, omit the chili powder)

*I used the full 1/2 teaspoon in the sauce, and then less than even the 1/4 teaspoon on top of the pasta because I got scared it would be too spicy.  But it really is pretty mild (at least, the chipotle chili powder I used was), so as long as you’re not completely spice-adverse you can go ahead and use as much as you want.

Instructions

To prepare sauce, melt butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat and whisk in the flour. Continue whisking and cook for 2 minutes. Slowly add milk, whisking constantly. Cook until sauce thickens, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat. Add cheeses, salt, chili powder, and garlic powder. Stir until cheese is melted and all ingredients are incorporated, about 3 minutes. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter or oil an 8-inch baking dish. Cook penne two minutes less than package directions. (It will finish cooking in the oven.) Rinse pasta in cold water and drain well.

Combine pasta and sauce in a medium bowl; mix carefully but thoroughly. Scrape the pasta into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle top with cheeses and then the chili powder.

For black pepper option, use Marco Polo in place of Flagship in both the sauce and the topping. Omit chili powder in both the sauce and the topping. 

Bake, uncovered, 20-25 minutes, or until top is golden brown and sauce is bubbling. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

If planning to use as a freezer meal, I still bake the casserole beforehand and then freeze it after it’s cooled, but I’m pretty sure you could freeze it uncooked as well.  Even if it’s fully cooked, it will take at least the full baking time to reheat.  I always tell people to take it out of the freezer as soon as possible and then bake at 350 for 30-60 minutes. If it’s close to fully defrosted it might take only 30 minutes to heat through; if it’s fully frozen it will take closer to an hour. These non-specific instructions really through my brother in law for a loop, but it’s the best way I can think of to explain it – if anyone has better tips I would love to hear them in the comments!

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Mac and Cheese, Part One

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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One year ago: Crunchy Baked Pasta with Sausage (or Squash) and Greens

Mac and Cheese, previously: Melissa Clark’s Carroty Mac and Cheese

Barefoot Contessa’s Mac and Cheese, from Barefoot Contessa Family Style

Ingredients:

Kosher salt
Olive oil
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

To Make:

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.  

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Chicken Lasagna Cacciatore

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I’m not entirely sure if lasagna is a “sexy” enough topic for a blog post, but I’ve had enough people ask me for this recipe over the years that I thought I should share it with all of you. Plus, it seems appropriate to celebrate our first official week of rainy weather with a recipe from my “Celebrate the Rain” cookbook from the Junior League of Seattle. [Sidenote, my career in the Junior League was sadly short lived – but this cookbook was one of the best things I got out of it.]  I’m not ordinarily a huge lasagna fan – I don’t eat red meat, which means I often can’t eat it anyways, but even when there’s a veggie option I find it’s usually heavy and/or mushy and/or bland.  It’s hard for me not to like a dish made up of pasta plus cheese plus tomato sauce, but rarely have I experienced a truly stand out dish – this is one of the few lasagna recipes I’ve found that I can truly say I love. So much so that I made it for a dinner party last week, and have been pouting about lack of leftovers ever since.

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Chicken cacciatore is basically chicken braised in tomato sauce, usually with some combination of onions, garlic, mushrooms, bell peppers, and herbs. I made that definition up, but it’s a combination of the first five or so recipes I read after a quick google search. This recipe, as the name implies, is a combination of chicken cacciatore and lasagna. We make a “cacciatore sauce” of sorts using lots of fresh vegetables, shred the chicken into the sauce, and layer it with noodles (or pasta sheets!) like a lasagna, only using mozzarella and parm instead of your typical ricotta layer. While there is still plenty of cheese, it somehow seems so much lighter than traditional lasagna – and so full of veggies that you don’t even feel that bad about going back for seconds.

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This isn’t the quickest of recipes, but as lasagnas go it’s pretty simple to put together. The chopping takes some time, but it’s so worth it. I’m now really wishing I had doubled the recipe, as this will keep well in the freezer (baked or unbaked), and as long as you’re doing one, you might as well do two (or even three!) – the increase in time is marginal. Time saving tips include no-boil noodles or pasta sheets and rotisserie chicken. Boiling lasagna noodles is a total pain – no matter how much oil I add to my cooking water, they seem to always stick together and then break when I try to pull them apart. I’ve used no-boil noodles before and think they’re fine, but I know some people don’t like them – the pasta sheets really are the way to go if you can get them. They’re so easy and so fun, and it makes it a lot easier to serve your lasagna without having to worry about cutting in between the noodles (no pretty ruffles like regular lasagna noodles, though). Rotisserie chicken is a huge time saver, and I find the meat easier to shred. For once I can’t tell you to use the Trader Joe’s pre-chopped onions (my apologies to your eyeballs), but slicing doesn’t take too terribly long.  Pre-grated cheese seems so un-gourmet….but if that’s your thing, I won’t tell and it will still taste yummy.  Honestly though, if you can force yourself to be at least sort of efficient in the kitchen (slice onions while chicken cooks, slice mushrooms/mince garlic/dice pepper while onions cook, grate cheese while sauce simmers, etc.) it really doesn’t take that long to put together.

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Layer your lasagna: noodles, sauce, cheese; repeat; repeat again. Don’t the pasta sheets look so fun?!? Dump an extra can of tomatoes over everything (except the top layer of cheese) if you’re short on sauce (see my note at the bottom of the recipe). You can stop here and then bake later (if you’re making this ahead of time), or freeze now and bake later, or bake and then freeze – the possibilities are endless.  For my aforementioned dinner party, I put the lasagna together ahead of time, went about my day, and then popped it in the oven right before everyone arrived. The house smelled yummy, we had a lovely 30 minute cocktail hour, and then I took the lasagna out of the oven, popped dessert in, and we sat down to a bubbling-hot-out-of-the-oven dinner (and then an hour later, a bubbling-hot-out-of-the-oven apple crisp).  For someone who’s always scrambling around and doing everything last minute, I was pretty proud of myself!  Lasagna may not be the sexiest blog topic, but it gets major points for the make-ahead factor. Serve with a simple green salad and bread, and it’s a great meal to share with friends – you can sit and chat and enjoy yourself rather than frantically throwing everything together at the last minute. And with a fire in the fireplace and a couple bottles of wine, it’s the perfect meal with which to celebrate the rain.

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Chicken Lasagna Cacciatore, from Celebrate the Rain

Serves 8*

Ingredients:
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
3/4 lbs. boneless, chicken chicken breast**
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
10 ounces button mushrooms, brushed clean, trimmed, and thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into 1/2″ dice
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes***
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1 lb. mozarella cheese, grated
1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
12 cooked lasagna noodles OR 9 no-boil lasagna noodles OR 3 fresh pasta sheets

To make sauce:
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper, add them to the pan, and cook until browned on the bottom, about 6 minutes. Flip the chicken and cook until tender and cooked through, about 5 minutes longer.  Transfer the chicken to a plate and let cool; reserve the saucepan. When the chicken is cool, shred it and set aside. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in the saucepan over medium heat.  Add the onions and sauté until tender and lightly browned, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the mushrooms and garlic and cook until the mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes longer.  Add the bell pepper and sauté until nearly tender, about 2 minutes.  Stir in the tomatoes, parsley, oregano, basil, salt, black pepper, and dried red pepper flakes. Add the chicken, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 10 minutes.

To prepare lasagna: 
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Oil a 9 x 13 baking dish. Spread 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce (avoiding large chunks of chicken or vegetables) on the bottom of the dish.*** Line the dish with 4 cooked lasagna noodles or 3 no-boil lasagna noodles or one pasta sheet. Spread 1 1/2 cups of the tomato sauce over the pasta and sprinkle with 1/3 of the mozzarella and 1/3 of the parmesan. Repeat the layering of noodles, sauce, and cheese two more times.  (The lasagna can be prepared a few days ahead, covered with plastic, and refrigerated, or covered securely with plastic and foil and frozen for a few weeks). Bake the lasagna until the cheese turns golden brown in spots and the sauce is bubbling, about 30 minutes (if after 30 minutes the sauce is bubbling but the cheese hasn’t started browning, turn the oven to broil and watch the lasagna carefully – it will brown quickly).  Transfer the dish to a wire rack and let the lasagna sit for 5-10 minutes before serving.

*The recipe says 8 servings, but I’ve found it usually yields closer to 10-12. You’ll want leftovers, though.
**You could use a store-bought rotisserie chicken here as a shortcut. I usually do, and wondered why I didn’t this time (not that it’s hard to cook the chicken, but I always manage to get oil splattered all over my stovetop). You’ll need about two cups cooked, shredded white meat, skin and bones discarded.  One chicken should yield this easily.
***Every time I make this recipe, I find that I’m way short on sauce (in part probably because my lasagna pan is bigger than 9×13, so this may not be as much of an issue for you). My new trick is to use an extra can of crushed tomatoes – you could use a jar of spaghetti sauce as well if you’re in a pinch.  I like to pour 1/2 cup – 1 cup crushed tomatoes into the bottom of the pan before I start building the lasagna (rather than using the sauce as instructed). Then I do the recommended 1 1/2 cups of sauce per layer (possibly a little more if it looks like that isn’t enough). Once I reach the third layer I’m a little short, so I use up the homemade sauce and then dump the rest of the can of crushed tomatoes over the casserole before I add the final layer of cheese.  You could use a 15.5-ounce can of tomatoes if your lasagna pan is closer to 9×13 size/if you find you aren’t that short on sauce, but I used an entire 28-ounce can this time and it turned out great.  You could also just add the second can of tomatoes to the sauce as you’re making it (along with the can called for), but my saucepan is usually close to overflowing so I’ve been doing it this way.  Making sure the top layer of pasta is fully covered with sauce is especially important if you’re using the no-boil noodles or the fresh pasta sheets as they’ll need the liquid to cook. photo 3

Friday Faves

So I just did a quick count, and it turns out this is my 13th Friday Faves post. That means I’ve come up with 65 things to be excited about in the last few months – the better you know me, the more you realize that’s a pretty big accomplishment for my sometimes-not-quite-so-excited little self. And they haven’t all been pictures of my Glassybaby or J.Crew sale finds, even!

Tomato plants on display at Met Market – I would kill for more sun on my deck (or better yet, a full-sun backyard) so I could plant a “salsa garden” like Martha Stewart.

I’ve been cooking a lot of freezer meals for my grandparents – baking mac and cheese in muffin tins is a fun alternative to a normal casserole dish, as you can just pop them out, wrap them in foil, and stick pre-portioned meals into the freezer – easier to store and to use. For bigger portions/appetites, this “jumbo” tin works great. I used this recipe (healthy-ish and always a big hit), but you could do anything you like. If anyone has any good ideas for freezer meals – I have a lot of new moms to bring dinner to as well as Grandma and Grandpa – I would love to hear them in the comments.

So, this is happening. I’m officially a Game of Thrones nerd. Please no one talk to me or try to put anything on my social calendar for awhile – I’ve got something like 5,000 pages to get through.

Has everyone discovered Rent the Runway yet? I wore this Nanette Lepore pink and purple party dress and House of Harlow bangle to my brother and soon-to-be-sister-in-law’s “fiesta” couples’ shower last weekend and both were big hits. And on Sunday morning, I just shoved them into a pre-paid envelope and dropped them off at UPS. So easy and so fun!

For anyone who has ever wondered if you can mix vodka and champagne: the answer is yes. Maybe this was already obvious to you, but I had never thought of it. This fun cocktail (I wish I could remember the name – something mure?) was vodka, champagne, blackberry liquor and lime – it’s like a high-end version of the beer-vodka-crystal light concoction we used to make in college, except served in a champagne flute rather than a cooler.  Delicious and classy – is it time for happy hour yet?

So, that’s 61-65. And now we’re that much closer to 5 pm (or whenever your weekend officially starts – I hope its sooner).  Wishing you all a fabulous Friday and a sunny weekend !