Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Flat-Out Fabulous Macaroni and Cheese

Given that I have diabetes, macaroni and cheese isn't on my list of dishes to make. I love it--who doesn't--but like pizza it's the poster dish for all I shouldn't eat. But in August my neighbors decided to have a potluck alley party and I was in need of a dish that adults and kids would love. What better than mac 'n cheese?

Because I'm not an old hand with a favorite dish, I consulted various people in my circle and was told that Chef Flor Franco had made a stunning one recently. She's a good friend so I texted her, asking what her key ingredients were. Her answer? Heavy whipping cream, sharp white cheddar and manchego cheese. Oh, and bacon.

I was with her up till the bacon. I love bacon but I felt it was just one ingredient too many for what I wanted to do, especially if kids were going to eat it. After all, they were likely fans of the blue box. I went shopping for ingredients and found that heavy whipping cream--at least at Trader Joe's was ridiculously expensive. Since most people use milk, I compromised with half and half.

Then there was the actual how-to. You'd be surprised at how many techniques there are for making mac 'n cheese. I know, your mom or grandma's is the best, but I have to say there are a lot of contenders out there. I was drawn to two approaches: Alton Brown and Martha Stewart. It was easy enough to sort out the basics and create my own version using the best of what I found. A little less cooking of the pasta here, the spice combo there, tempering eggs, panko topping. 

Well, it all came together in a bubbling, rich, creamy casserole with a crusty top and lots of flavor. And, friends, I had very little left over to take home. I'll remember it fondly when I munch on a green salad.

Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 12 to 16

1 pound elbow macaroni
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
6 cups half and half
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup yellow onion, finely diced
1 bay leaf
2 large eggs, beaten
12 ounces sharp white cheddar, shredded
12 ounces manchego cheese, shredded

3 tablespoons butter
1 cup panko bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish and set aside.

Fill a large pot with salted water and bring to a boil. Add pasta and cook 2 to 3 minutes less than the package directions. (The pasta will finish cooking while it bakes.) Transfer to a colander, rinse under cold water, and drain well. Set aside while making the sauce.

While the pasta is cooking, in another pot, melt the butter. When it bubbles, whisk in the flour and stir for 1 minute. Stir in half and half, salt, nutmeg, ground pepper, cayenne pepper, onion, and bay leaf. Temper in the eggs by stirring in a little of the milk mixture to the eggs and then adding that mixture to the sauce. Slowly stir in ¾ of the cheese. Whisk constantly until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick. Remove from heat and remove bay leaves.

Stir the macaroni into the sauce. Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish. Mix together the remaining cheeses and sprinkle evenly over the mixture. 

Melt the 3 tablespoons of butter for the topping in a sauté pan and add the panko crumbs. Stir until coated. Top the cheese-covered macaroni with the bread crumbs.

Bake for 45 minutes uncovered or until brown on top. Remove from oven and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

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