Thursday, March 29, 2012

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Every Sunday after church, my family eats macaroni and cheese for lunch.  The kind from a box.  With powdered orange "cheese."  With peanut butter and crackers on the side.  What a bunch of weirdos.

Actually, they probably eat much more sophisticated lunches now that I'm out of the house.

And actually, my husband and I started the tradition on vicarage of eating boxed mac and cheese every Sunday after church.

And actually, we still do.


I've honestly never been much of a fan of homemade macaroni and cheese, probably because I was used to the boxed stuff as a kid and thought that it was the real thing, to which no other macaroni could compare.  On the other hand, I can't even remember the last time I've tried a bowl of the homemade stuff.  Apparently, I've been missing out.  This week, inspired by the Good Eats episode "For Whom the Cheese Melts 2" (recipe here), I made a baked version from the magazine Fine Cooking.  It was good.  Not that you can really go wrong with three kinds of cheese and a crispy, golden brown topping.

As usual, I made a few minor changes, like substituting panko for the fresh breadcrumbs.  (Panko, by the way, is great for all kinds of toppings and breadings.  It's under $2 for a box and keeps forever.  You should be able to find it in the Asian section at Meijer or Kroger.)  Next time, I'll probably cut down on the thyme, which was slightly overpowering this time around.  I stuck with the basic version, but the recipe also suggests some extras, like ham or hot chilies, that you can add for a new level of deliciousness.  Maybe next Sunday I'll add some bacon.  You can bet I won't be opening a box.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese (based on this recipe)
Serves 4
Time:  45 minutes

Kosher or coarse salt
3 T. butter
1 small onion, finely diced
3 T. flour
1 1/2 tsp. Dijon or spicy mustard
2 cups 2% or whole milk
1 large sprig fresh thyme, plus 1/2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves (OR 1/4 tsp. dry thyme leaves)
1 bay leaf
4 oz. (1 packed cup) grated extra-sharp Cheddar
2 oz. (1/2 packed cup) grated Monterey Jack
1/4 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/4 tsp. Tabasco sauce
freshly ground black pepper  
1/2 lb. elbow macaroni or other small pasta, such as small shells  
3 T. butter, melted
1 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
1/4 cup Parmesan

Heat the oven to 400°F and put a large pot of well-salted water on to boil over high heat.

Meanwhile, in another large pot or Dutch oven (I only have one big pot, so I used a large skillet with high sides), melt 3 T. butter over medium heat. Add the onion and 1/4 tsp. salt and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring, until slightly darker, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the mustard.

Switch to a whisk and gradually add the milk, whisking constantly. Go slowly at first, whisking until the mixture is smooth before adding more milk.

Switch back to the spoon and stir in the thyme sprig, bay leaf, and 1/4 tsp. salt. Bring to a bare simmer, and cook, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes (reduce the heat to medium low or low as needed to maintain the bare simmer).  Discard thyme sprig and bay leaf. Add Cheddar and Jack cheeses, stirring until melted, then add the Worcestershire and Tabasco. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm, stirring occasionally.

Cook the pasta until al dente. Drain thoroughly. Add the pasta to the cheese sauce, and stir until well combined. Spread mixture in a lightly greased casserole. (I used an oblong, 2 1/2-quart dish.  If you follow the original recipe, use a 9x13-inch casserole; I've halved the recipe here.)

In a medium bowl, toss the panko, Parmesan, melted butter, chopped thyme, 1/4 tsp. salt, and 1/8 tsp. pepper. Scatter mixture evenly over the pasta.

Bake, uncovered, until topping is golden, about 15 minutes. Let rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

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