So during these winter-like days I am craving and making comfort food. For those of you that are familiar with my cooking style, you know that I try to cook from scratch with fresh ingredients. I avoid eating processed foods - heck, when I lived in DC for the last 6 years I never owned a microwave. I do however have a weakness, and it's Stouffer's mac and cheese - I LOVE it! Even when I was microwave free I would buy it (on occasion) and bake it in my oven, which was a 45 minute commitment to get my cheesy, starchy fix.
I've made mac and cheese from scratch at home and it has never really satisfied my craving - somehow it's always been granular and lacking in flavor. So this week I attempted to make macaroni and cheese again, learning from my many mistakes in the past, and I feel like I finally found a recipe that's a keeper. It isn't low fat, and it's not healthy, but it's good, tasty, comfort food at its best.
Here are the ingredients that you will need to make 8-12 servings:
- 1 lb pasta
- 8 oz fontina cheese, grated
- 8 oz asiago cheese, grated
- 8 oz aged sharp cheddar cheese, grated
- 8 oz aged medium cheddar cheese, grated
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1/4 cup flour
- 2-3 cups 1% milk
- 1 tsp nutmeg
- 1 bay leaf
- 2-3 tbsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp fresh black pepper, or more depending on taste
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, seasoned with one tablespoon of salt. Add the pasta and cook until slightly tender, but still under-done, for about 6 minutes. I used gemelli pasta because I wanted a little more texture to help the cheesy sauce latch onto the pasta. Drain and set the pasta aside in a bowl or colander.
Return the empty pot to the stove top, add the butter, and cook on low heat until melted. Whisk in the flour well to form a roux, which will be the base of the cheese sauce. The roux is essential - it thickens the sauce, but more importantly it helps prevent the melted cheeses from coagulating and becoming a greasy mess. Add the nutmeg and continue to cook the roux for 2-3 minutes on low heat - no browning here! For a smooth, lump-free sauce make sure to whisk out all of the flour granules thoroughly. Slowly (very slowly) add the milk to the roux, whisking constantly (a third hand helps here, but it's doable by yourself with a heavy pot). When the milk first hits the roux it will immediately seize up, but just keep whisking and slowly adding more. Eventually all will be well incorporated, with no lumps, and you will have a classic bechamel sauce. Add the bay leaf and allow the bechamel to simmer on low heat, as it slowly thickens. Continue to cook for 5-8 minutes. Slowly add the cheese into the bechamel, stirring after each handful to incorporate well, and cook for a minute or so, until all the cheese has melted into the sauce. Season with salt and pepper, remembering that the pasta is under-seasoned at this poing. As a result, you should over-season the sauce slightly to compensate.
Add the cooked, drained pasta to the cheese sauce, mix to incorporate, and pour everything into a large baking dish, or into individual dishes like the one below for a truly special presentation! Bake the mac and cheese for 30 minutes at 350 degrees, or until the top is golden brown.
The hard part about this dish is having the patience to let the mac and cheese rest for 10-15 minutes before serving. But if you don't, not only will you have a nuclear meltdown in your mouth, the moisture squeezed out of the cheese won't have a chance to re-distribute through the sauce and pasta. Since this is a rich, cheesy dish I use a nice acidic hot sauce to cut the richness and add some kick!