Monday, March 25, 2013

Macaroni and Three Cheeses

One can't possibly have enough macaroni and cheese recipes in their repertoire. It's the essential crowd-pleaser that bridges the gap between young and old. Elevated from what comes in a blue box, homemade mac and cheese has many benefits other than its superior flavor (and lack of artificial ingredients, food coloring, and preservatives).

When you make your own mac and cheese, you can essentially use any cheeses you like. Here I've selected a trifecta of beautifully complimentary cheeses: cheddar for its sharpness, Gouda for its nutty and creamy characteristics, and Havarti for it's mild and buttery balance. All three are great melting cheeses. All three would be great on their own in a macaroni and cheese, but here they work in conjunction to provide the best that each can offer.

Homemade mac and cheese also benefits from a variety of pasta shapes that can be selected. Traditionally, elbows and shells are common, but I love occasionally using pipette (basically ridged elbows that are pinched on one end) and rotini (corkscrews). For this occasion, my nephew's first birthday party, I really wanted something especially playful. I selected wagon wheels, which are just as much fun for me as they are for kids, trust me! They also have fun little pockets for cheese sauce to nestle inside. They're equally perfect for homemade stove top macaroni and cheese!

This is my basic, go-to baked macaroni and cheese recipe. I sometimes scale it down to make less, and I often change up the variety of cheeses, the type of crust on top, etc. Feel free to make it your own! That's the fun of this versatile dish!

P.S. Because this mac and cheese was prepared for a birthday party, it had some time to rest before we actually sat down to eat, which is why it doesn't appear to be particularly "saucy" in the photographs. If you dig in shortly after it emerges from the oven, it will have less time to set up as it did here. Either way, it stole the show at the party and everyone loved it!

Macaroni and Three Cheeses
Serves 8 to 12

8 ounces sharp white cheddar cheese, grated
8 ounces Gouda cheese, grated
8 ounces Havarti cheese, grated
1 pound small pasta, such as elbows, shells, pipette, rotini, or wagon wheels
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups milk (any kind will do), heated to a simmer
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
Pinch grated nutmeg
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup panko
1 T. extra-virgin olive oil or melted butter

Mix the cheddar, Gouda, and Havarti cheeses together in a large bowl, and reserve 1 cup for the topping. Set aside.

Bring a pot of water to boil. Add salt and the pasta, and cook half as long as the box suggests for al dente (it will continue cooking in the oven). Drain and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the flour to make a roux and whisk until it is nice and smooth. Cook for a couple minutes to cook out the raw flour flavor, but do not allow the roux to brown. Add the hot milk a little at a time, whisking in between each addition, until it has all been incorporated. Cook, constantly whisking, about 5 to 8 more minutes on medium-high heat until it begins to simmer and thicken (it should coat the back of a spoon easily). Season with mustard, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and whisk in the shredded cheese mixture a little at a time until completely combined.

Once the cheeses are all combined and melted, add the pasta and stir to coat. Pour the pasta into a greased 13-by-9-inch baking dish, or divide into small oven-proof bowls or ramekins. Sprinkle the remaining 1 cup cheese over the top. Drizzle the olive oil over the panko and toss with your fingers to mix. Distribute the panko over the pasta. At this point, the macaroni and cheese can be cooled and then covered and refrigerated until ready to bake.

Bake the pasta for 20 to 25 minutes until nice and bubbly, and golden brown. If the casserole was refrigerated, bake it covered in aluminum foil for about 15 minutes, then remove the foil and continue to bake until bubbly and golden, another 20 to 25 minutes. If desired, finish the casserole under the broiler to get a bit more color and crunch on top. Allow the pasta to cool for a minute before serving, as it will be extremely hot.


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