Classic Mac and Cheese

by rivka on June 19, 2009 · 6 comments

in comfort food, main dishes, vegetarian

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As you all know by now, D’s made lots of culinary concessions for the sake of our relationship. In the four-plus years we’ve been together, she’s become someone who appreciates good food far more than I ever thought she would. So this past week, I felt inspired to acknowledge that by taking a couple of steps in her direction and finally trying my hand at macaroni and cheese.

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I’ve been meaning to make mac and cheese for quite some time. After seeing Ina Garten make it several months ago on her FN show, Barefoot Contessa, I knew it wouldn’t be difficult to make. Then I saw that show rerun like four or five times (ok, Ina, I get it!) and decided to give it a go. The method is simple: heat flour and butter to make a roux. Add milk and mix to combine, then continue stirring until the milk is thickened. Add lots of cheese, stir until it melts, then incorporate cooked and drained macaroni. Optional step: transfer macaroni to a gratin, add some very optional tomato slices, top with buttered bread crumbs, and broil until bread crumbs are golden and crunchy.

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In terms of cheese, the sky’s the limit. Ina (she’s so congenial, I can’t help but feel like we’re on a first-name basis) recommends a mix of cheddar and gruyere, which is probably ideal. I didn’t have gruyere around so I used just Cabot white cheddar, and I liked the final result — but the sharpness of gruyere would go very nicely with the hit of nutmeg in Ina’s recipe. On one of her shows, Ina uses part gorgonzola or other blue cheese for an added layer of complexity. Me? I like my blue cheese in small portions, so I’d skip, unless blue cheese is really totally your thing.

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Though I bet the tomatoes would provide a much-needed hit of juiciness and freshness amid the layers of cheesy pasta, I was making this for a lover of all things traditional and someone who takes her mac and cheese very seriously (she boasts a long repertoire of restaurants whose mac she’s tried and critiqued; for those in DC, I think her faves are Napoleon, on Columbia road, where a side will set you back a mere 5 bucks, and Belga Cafe, where the mac is truffled (!) and not too goopy.) In any event, I’d definitely have used the tomatoes otherwise and would blindly recommend that you do the same. In terms of servings, I halved this recipe and baked it in an 8×8, and it served 4+, so make adjustments accordingly.

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Macaroni and Cheese
adapted from Ina Garten, via Food Network

Kosher salt
1 pound elbow macaroni or cavatappi
1 quart milk
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
12 ounces Gruyere, grated (4 cups), or sub out for cheddar or other melty cheese
8 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar, grated (2 cups)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 pound fresh tomatoes (4 small), optional
1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs (5 slices, crusts removed)

Directions
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Drizzle oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add the macaroni and cook according to the directions on the package, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain well.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan, but don’t boil it. Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large (4-quart) pot and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring with a whisk. While whisking, add the hot milk and cook for a minute or two more, until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, add the Gruyere, Cheddar, 1 tablespoon salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooked macaroni and stir well. Pour into a 3-quart baking dish.

Slice the tomatoes and arrange on top. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, combine them with the fresh bread crumbs, and sprinkle on the top. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the macaroni is browned on the top.

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