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Homemade Mac + Cheese

[This morning, June 2011.]

Today, the urge for train journeys, and snow, and frozen lakes. June 10 and I am still in winter — wintered-over, perhaps, like a garden sleeping under the frost. But no: it is June 10, and I have tea on the table next to me, and the sun is rapidly burning the fog off the trees up the street, has burned it off, in fact. And suddenly it feels like summer (ish) after all and boy, I am ready. The wind is tossing around the branches of the trees outside; the kids at the daycare across the street are playing in the yard on their lunch break. I am baking the last of a batch of oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookies and salivating over what I will have for dinner later: homemade macaroni and cheese, baked in the oven slow and sweet until the scent of it drives you almost mad.

I haven’t shared this recipe before, though I’ve certainly made it before, because it’s almost a crime how much cheese is in it. Yet it’s incredibly delicious, and me being me I put in vegetables, too, as if that will make it better. (That, and the addition of vegetables makes it taste extra good.) It comes by way of Martha Stewart, and while on the whole I tend to stick to lighter fare — such as a bowl of garlicky udon noodles, vegetable-laden soups, or quinoa in all sorts of permutations — I definitely appreciate decadence every so often.

This recipe makes an enormous batch of mac and cheese, which is good because it’s slated to go to a few friends who’ve just had a baby, an adorable scrap of a little man I first met when he was about a week old. He’s a little bigger now, but his parents are still hungry — so tomorrow I will bring this by, along with the cookies and a tupperware of potato-leek soup. This recipe makes so much, even, that we’ll tuck into a few bowls tonight (along with a massive salad, just so I feel a bit better about the mumble mumble two pounds or so of cheese that go into the sauce). This time around I’ve added a lot of wilted spinach and halved cherry tomatoes; I’ve also made this with sauteed mushrooms and onions, which is another nice addition. It’s comfort and comforting and filling and freezable and addictive — pretty much all you could ask for in those first few months of new-baby when you’re still wandering bleary-eyed through the days and marveling at this lovely new person who’s now living with you.

(Of course, I’ve also served this at a work lunch and they certainly had no complaints.)

So here goes — I’m posting this as-is, directly from the lady herself. I won’t be offended if you don’t want to make it; I was daunted at the amount of the cheese on the ingredients list the first time I came across it myself. Still, something about it tugged at me … and so I decided to try it anyway, despite my penchant for vegan meals … and I did not regret it for a minute. I doubt you will, either. (But make sure, maybe, to share.)

I recommend using sharpsharp cheddar here as well as Gruyere and parmesan or asiago cheese. I like the contrast that blend creates, and, well, extremely sharp cheddar is kind of my thing, so I’m a bit biased. Still. It’s darn good.

[print_this]Martha Stewart’s Macaroni and Cheese, adapted from Martha Stewart Living Cookbook: The Original Classics

Serves 12 (or more)

Note: I often leave off the breadcrumbs because I’m not a huge fan. If adding vegetables, cook separately (i.e., spinach, mushrooms, shallots, etc.) and add to the pasta along with the cheese sauce; stir to well combine.

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for casserole
6 slices white bread, crusts removed, torn into 1/4- to l/2-inch pieces
5 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons coarse salt, plus more for water
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 1/2 cups (about 18 ounces) grated sharp white cheddar cheese
1 1/2 cups (about 6 ounces) grated Gruyère
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 pound elbow macaroni

Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish; set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the macaroni until the outside of pasta is cooked and the inside is underdone, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the macaroni to a colander, rinse under cold running water, and drain well.

Warm the milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter in a high-sided skillet over medium heat. When the butter bubbles, add the flour. Cook, stirring, 1 minute.

While whisking, slowly pour in the warned milk a little at a time to keep mixture smooth. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick, about 5 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in salt, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper, cheddar cheese, and the Gruyère; set the cheese sauce aside.

In a large bowl, mix the pasta with the cheese sauce. Pour the mixture into the prepared dish. Sprinkle the Parmesan and the breadcrumbs over the top. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let cool for about 5 minutes upon removing from the oven, and serve.[/print_this]

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