Saturday, June 8, 2013

Macaroni and Cheese

Having been raised in a Polish home, albeit in Canada, mac 'n' cheese was not a food I was familiar with growing up. My memories of eating macaroni as a child were in milk soup (much tastier than it sounds), a traditional Polish comfort food and the only dish I remember my father cooking. Though as a teenager my brother ate an entire box of KD (Kraft Dinner) every night as a midnight snack (my mother had long since given up trying to keep ahead of his appetite), my first taste of this classic dish was in the dining hall during my first year at university, an experience I never repeated.

Macaroni and Cheese

It was brought to my attention a few years ago that my family was missing out on something special - "deprived" was the word that was used - so I buckled, found a recipe online and made it. I've tweaked it over the years, adding twice the pasta for a more substantial but slightly less creamy dish, and adjusting the seasonings and method. I like it and my family loves it.....or at least the members who like cheese do.

pasta
Scoobi Doo pasta
sauce
sauce ingredients
topping
topping ingredients

Macaroni and Cheese
adapted from Alton Brown, Food Network 
serves 4-6

Ingredients:

Pasta and Sauce:
1 lb/450g Scoobi Doo pasta (aka cavatappi)
3 tbsp/42g unsalted butter
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
2 tsp dry mustard
1 tsp sweet paprika
3 cups/710ml cold 1% milk
1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 bay leaf
12 oz/340g reduced-fat sharp cheddar, shredded                       
salt and pepper to taste

Topping:
3 tbsp/42g unsalted butter
1 cup/80g panko crumbs

Equipment:
9" x 13"/22 x 33cm baking pan
large pot for cooking pasta
colander for draining pasta
medium saucepan for cooking béchamel sauce
sieve for straining béchamel
medium non-stick sauté pan for browning panko crumbs
innumerable spoons, whisks and spatulas!

Method

1. Preheat oven to 350F/175C. Lightly butter a 9" x 13"/22 x 33cm baking pan and set aside.

2. To cook the pasta, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, stirring occasionally. Cooking time will vary with the brand of pasta so use the package directions as a guideline. (7 minutes for the brand I use). Pour into the colander to drain and return the cooked pasta to the pot but not to the heat.

3. In the meantime, make the béchamel by first melting the butter in the saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the flour, dry mustard and paprika and stir with a wooden spoon until combined. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, for 4-5 minutes. The mixture will be sizzling and will start to smell nutty. Slowly add the milk - a steady stream works best - whisking constantly until the mixture is completely smooth. Add the onion and bay leaf and cook the sauce 10 minutes or until thickened, stirring frequently.

4. Place a sieve over the pot of cooked, drained pasta. Pour the béchamel sauce through the sieve over the hot pasta. The sieve will strain out the onion and the bay leaf (and any lumps). Press lightly against the onion in the sieve to release any extra liquids into the pot. Remove the sieve and add the cheese to the pasta. Stir until sauce and pasta are combined and the cheese is melted. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour the cheese-y pasta mixture into the prepared baking pan.

5. For the topping, melt the butter in a non-stick sauté pan on medium-high heat. Add the panko crumbs and stir quickly to coat. Stir periodically when they start to toast. Once they're golden brown, remove from heat and sprinkle them evenly over the pasta.
mac n cheese
saucy pasta in the baking pan
with topping
ready for baking
6. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until bubbling. Remove from the oven and allow to rest 5 minutes before serving.

Additional tips:

It's best to start the béchamel as soon as you put the pasta water on to boil so that both are finished at the same time and hot when they're combined since you're relying on the residual heat to melt the cheese.

A wide, non-metal (you don't want to scratch your pan surface) spatula works well for stirring the panko crumbs.

If you want to have any chance of an easy cleanup of the pot and saucepan, presoak them with room temperature or lukewarm water, not hot water which will cook the milk solids onto the interior surface making clean up a nightmare!

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