Some Serious Macaroni and Cheese

I think I’m starting to get a little homesick. It’s not because I’ve been away from home for a while (I was home just this past Christmas), but I’m missing the carefree lifestyle more and more. I miss walking downstairs to find my parents in the living room, drinking tea and watching HGTV. I miss going into the basement to play video games with my little brother. I miss being woken up by constant, loud reminders that a meal was ready. I miss eating food together as a family.

But most of all, I miss cooking for my family. I remember coming home after my first year of culinary school and I was so eager to show them everything I’ve learned. My parents’ less-than-adventurous palates were not my priority; my little brother was. He was (and still kind of is) the pickiest of eaters and getting him to try new things was a challenge. So I played by his game.

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When he was little, our freezer would be stocked with two things: Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese and too many mozzarella sticks. I told my mom to stop buying both of those things before he figured out how to mix the two together and showed her how to make Some Serious Macaroni and Cheese. His reaction to the casserole in front of him was understated and anticlimactic, but when he asked for seconds, I knew I had won. He has since asked me to teach my mom how to make it and, because of that, I consider it comfort food. Also, it’s macaroni and cheese, of course it’s comfort food.

The key to any great batch is the cheese sauce. In this recipe, once you make your béchamel, or cream sauce, it’s crucial that you remove it from the heat before adding any cheese. This allows the cheese to melt in the residual heat and, therefore, prevents it from overheating and separating. Master this and you can make any cheese sauce your heart desires.

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That’s another thing about macaroni and cheese: it’s fully customizable. I made two different kinds: blue cheese with basil and cheddar with smoked mozzarella and bacon. My vegetarian boyfriend (who is also kosher) didn’t approve of my latter decision, but my friend and his spirit animal did.

Macaroni and Cheese with Smoked Mozzarella and Bacon

Serves 4-6

  • ½ pound medium pasta shells
  • 3 slices sourdough bread
  • 6 slices bacon, cut in half lengthwise and then into slivers
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh thyme, picked
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 cups sharp cheddar, grated
  • 4 ounces smoked mozzarella, cut into ¼ inch cubes

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Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bust out your trusty cast iron pan or butter a 9×9 casserole dish and set aside. Cut bread pieces into quarter-inch cubes or tear into ¼-½-inch pieces and collect in a medium bowl. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon of butter. When butter bubbles, add bacon, shallots and thyme. Sauté until bacon is cooked through and shallots are translucent. Pour contents into the bowl with bread, and toss. Set the breadcrumbs aside.

Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Cook your pasta the way the box tells you, but drain your pasta through a colander when it is just slightly underdone. Set aside.

In a small pot over medium heat, heat milk until it is scalding, or just under boiling temperature (about 180°). Melt 4 tablespoons of butter (half a stick) in a medium pot over medium heat. When butter bubbles, add flour. Cook, stirring just until lumps disappear and roux is smooth, 1 minute. Slowly pour hot milk into flour-butter mixture while whisking. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture becomes thick and begins to bubble. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and cheddar until most of the cheese is melted.

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In a large bowl, combine cheese sauce, mozzarella and pasta until pasta is coated evenly and you’re drooling a bit. Transfer to cast iron/greased casserole. Scatter breadcrumbs over the top and bake until crumbs begin to brown and cheese sauce is bubbling slightly, about 25 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving (or else everything you know and love about your mouth and tongue will be left in ruin).

Blue Cheese Macaroni with Whole Wheat-Basil Crust

Serves 4-6

  • ½ pound medium pasta shells
  • 3 slices whole wheat bread
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 ½ tablespoons fresh basil, finely chopped
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 8 ounces sharp cheddar, grated
  • 4 ounces blue cheese

Follow same method of preparation as described above with the following changes:

“In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt half a stick of butter (4 tablespoons). When butter bubbles, add shallots and basil. Sauté until shallots are tender. Pour butter mixture into the bowl with bread, and toss. Set the breadcrumbs aside.”

“Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture becomes thick and begins to bubble. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, cheddar, and blue cheese until most of the cheese is melted.”

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