Thursday, October 26, 2006

easiest baked mac-and-cheese

creamy baked mac-and-cheese

You know, this really started out far more innocently than it now may seem. And yes, I know you are snickering, because how on earth can one innocently go about a process than concludes with spooning into a deep casserole dish crusted with cheese and pasta in a two to one ratio? Well, you’re me, that’s how; and you needed to use up some milk.

The quart of whole milk had been purchased last Saturday with the intention of using it in aforementioned spinach quiche, which, oops, didn’t require any. It’s sat unopened in the fridge since, leaving me the quandary of finding a recipe that used a large quantity of it, as my inner Yiddishe Mama would not allow me to let it go bad, and god knows I am not earnest enough to actually make my morning lattes at home.

My first thought was chocolate pudding. It’s not really my favorite thing, but would that score me points with my eternal-inner-child husband or what? As I searched fruitlessly for a good basic recipe that was neither a pot de crème nor a puddle of ganache, I remembered that I also had a chunk of Cabot extra sharp cheddar to use up and now do you see how these things come to pass? Mac and cheese is one of these sinful beauts that I encourage everyone to make, at least once. There’s no comparison, not even a nominal one, to the box mixes, and if I told that the essence of most recipes is to boil milk, stir in cheese, pour it over par-baked pasta and bake it until it’s crusted, would you then believe me?

creamy baked mac-and-cheese

Sadly, finding a good recipe was not this simple, and seriously, when did mac-and-cheese get so gussied up? Bacon? Onions? Mushrooms? Blue cheeses? Heavy creams? Bechamel sauces with low proportions of mild cheeses? Curry? Blech! Look, there’s a place for fancy, and childhood classics aren’t it. A quick search on the New York Times website brought me to this archived article, and again to the notion that Julia Moskin is a woman after my own heart. She finds herself searching, like me, for an un-fussy, classic recipe and finds even more atrocities from white sauces, Worcestershire, smoked gouda and creamed onions instead. “None of the recipes came close to my fantasy of what the dish should be: nothing more than tender elbows of pasta suspended in pure molten cheddar, with a chewy, golden-brown crust of cheese on top,” she says, to which I say amen.

She bestows on us several nuggets of gooey wisdom. One, a seemingly outrageous 2:1 ration of cheese to pasta is indeed possible, and a good thing. Two, despite suggestions of glorious, rich cheeses, she found nothing better in end results than cheddar or (!) American cheese. Three: this is no time for whole wheat pasta or artisanal orecchiette, elbow pasta works best. Finally, she suggests that you resist the temptation to form a crust with unrelated ingredients such as bread crumbs, corn flakes or tortilla chips, with enough cheese, a crisp naturally forms on top. I leave you with her final gem:

“The moral of the story: When in doubt, add more cheese.”

creamy baked mac-and-cheese

Note: There is an additional macaroni and cheese recipe on this site, one we fell in love with long after discovering this one. Takes a bit longer, but whoa, those results are all that matter.

Easiest Baked Macaroni and Cheese
Adapted from The New York Times, 1/4/06

Moskin actually ends the article with two recipes, but I went with this first one because it had more milk, only (heh) a pound of cheese, and had the added intrigue of not requiring either the par-boiling of pasta or pre-simmering of the cheese sauce. Huzzah for fewer dishes! As it turned out, the second recipe will not be necessary as this one is just perfect for anyone looking for classic, baked, no-fuss mac and cheese.

Serve it with a g’normous green salad, in a feeble attempt at caloric balance, and wine, to remind yourself that you’re a grown-up.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

2 tablespoons butter
1 cup cottage cheese (not low fat)
2 cups milk (not skim)
1 teaspoon dry mustard
Pinch cayenne
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg (I skipped this)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated (I’m a big fan of Cabot extra-sharp, in the purple wrapper)
1/2 pound elbow pasta, uncooked.

1. Heat oven to 375°F and position an oven rack in upper third of oven. Use one tablespoon butter to grease a 9-inch round or square baking pan.

2. In a blender, purée cottage cheese, milk, mustard, cayenne, nutmeg and salt and pepper together.* Reserve 1/4 cup grated cheese for topping. In a large bowl, combine remaining grated cheese, milk mixture and uncooked pasta. Pour into prepared pan, cover tightly with foil and bake 30 minutes.

3. Uncover pan, stir gently, sprinkle with reserved cheese and dot with remaining tablespoon butter. Bake, uncovered, 30 minutes more, until browned. Let cool at least 15 minutes before serving.

* Next time, I will puree everything without the milk, and then add it in. I think that will put a finer grind on the cottage cheese, so no lumps remain.


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