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Friday, March 1, 2013

Baked Mac & Cheese

I don't necessarily believe in the legendary awesomeness of mac and cheese; really, it's just white sauce pasta with copious amounts of cheese.  And it's super bad for you.  Take the most carbolicious meal you can find, and then add a crapload of sodium and saturated fat to it.

In fact, I rarely make the whole 'homemade' 'baked' kind like this...

However, all of that said, I do admit that it is very filling and warming, and can be great to keep you going on a cold winter's day.

So, I made a batch this week.

I've made lots of cream sauces, and lots of cheesy pastas, but for the handful or so times I've made authentic, baked macaroni and cheese like this, I tend to keep it fairly close to the tradition.

So, macaroni noodles, cheddar cheese, and bread crumbs.

A few variations here and there (as well as a few substitutions), but for the most part it is pretty genuine.


As with all my pastas, I began by sauteing some onion, and then some garlic in a little bit of olive oil.

A fair bit, because this is a large batch.

As always, start with the onion, because it needs to saute for longer than the garlic.

So, I pureed about a quarter of a white onion with a spoonful of olive oil for lubrication.

And then sauteed that up in a small pan with about a 1/8 cup of unsalted butter.  Let all of that brown nicely - maybe about 8 minutes - before adding the (also pureed in the mixer) garlic.

After the garlic has been in there for a few minutes, I took a tiny spoonful out to use to 'grease' my baking dish.

But then I transferred most of the contents of the pan to a larger saucepan, leaving only a portion of the onion and garlic behind for some brown beans I was going to make later (brown beans and mac&cheese!) using that same pan.

So, now I had a saucepan with some deliciously mellow onion and garlic, waiting for me to add some milk to it, and a mixer needing to be cleaned.

So, always concerned with culinary efficiency, I poured a cup of milk (just skim milk) into my mixer and let the milk do my work for me.


Adding this to the saucepan, the oil, butter, and milk, don't really cooperate much right away.

So, we turn the heat up to medium, and while that is coming back up to temperature, get some thickening agent going.  

So, we move on to what I'll call the 'dry ingredient' portion of the preparation.

First, some freshly ground oregano leaves, a pinch of sea salt, and a dash of pepper, milled in a mortar and pestle.

Which gets added to some dry corn starch.  I still had my mixer out, so I figured why not use it for this, but a mixing bowl and a whisk usually do.

Then, about a half a cup of skim milk, and mix it all up.

Now, slowly whisk this into the sauce, which should be a little warmer by now.

Almost immediately upon adding this thickener, the sauce transforms into something far more cohesive, and (surprisingly) sauce-like!

This is basically a 'white sauce'.  From this soooooooo many sauces can be made.  Like... lots.

So, what are we going to turn it into?  How about a CHEESE sauce?  :)

As you can see, for traditional 'mac and cheese' it's mostly cheddar, but I confess I do like to add something with a little more bite to it.  I had some nice sharp pecorino romano left over from a couple weeks ago, and figured this would be a perfect use for it.  BTW - I didn't use all of the cheddar shown in this picture.

In fact, this is how much I used:

So, to transform a white sauce into a cheese sauce, you literally just stir the cheese in.  

***** Beware! Science-esque Information! *****

Technically - and as my experience with sauces continues to grow, I've learned - it can be a little more complicated than this.  Sometimes (especially with more complicated sauces than mac & cheddar cheese) particular attention needs to be paid to the fat content of your cheese relative to that of your sauce.  You can find this listed as a percentage on all cheese, displayed as MF% (milk fat percentage).  Usually listed right beside this number is the moisture content as well, and generally speaking the higher these numbers, the easier it is to 'melt' cheese smoothly into a sauce.  Generally.  So, in my experience I've learned (sometimes the hard way) that some cheeses just don't work so well in sauce form.  Particularly troublesome if you (like me) are often vying for 'low-fat' versions.  Anyway...

***** Breathe easy, Science-y Stuff is Over Now *****

No worries here, as there's a lot of dairy in this sauce, and lots of opportunity for the cheese to melt.  As you can see.

Et voila, un sauce de fromage!  Oh man, I could just drink that stuff.

So, my boiled macaroni noodles are ready to be dunked right in at this point.

If you've noticed, even though I've fully written this meal off as 'pretty unhealthy' I still choose to employ a few things to ameliorate that.  The relatively small amount of butter, the use of skim milk as opposed to cream, and the use of whole-grain pasta noodles.

The wife and I don't buy anything but, and I find I actually like them better.  They have a pleasant al-dente firmness.  Anyway... as always if you're going to cook to impress, or for discerning company - use the real stuff!!  So, put away the skim milk and grab the table cream!  :)  Anyway... for just the two of us though, this worked out just fine.

Wait - something's missing!  Something green!

I had some parsley sitting in the fridge which would actually go perfectly with this junk!

So, in that goes, loosely chopped (we're adding this not just for flavour but also for aesthetic value).

And that's it!  It's ready!  You could eat this right now, and no one would think it was anything but delicious as-is.


This is the traditional 'baked' mac & cheese, after all.

So, we're going to dump this in a large casserole / baking dish (the one from earlier which has been 'greased').

Spread it all out evenly and then add the 'topping' which is, again, traditionally bread crumbs.  I've seen all sorts of creative alternatives here, but we're gonna do the bread crumb thing.

I like to toast my bread crumbs a bit beforehand... for two reasons; toasting in a pan for a bit browns them nice and uniformly, but also dries them out furiously.  Which is a good thing when the intention is to provide a crispy topping on top of a wet sauce.

So, after toasting, and then pulsing in my mixer a bit, I had a decent sample of nicely-browned uniform-looking bread crumbs.

This would be fine on its own as a topping, but I saved a bit of romano and parsley which will do quite well as an addition to the crumbs.

So, spread out evenly over top of the whole thing, this gets put in the oven (uncovered) at 350°F for only about 15-20 minutes.  Too long and you risk drying out the entire dish.

So, while this is baking, I crack open a can of brown beans and cook it up in the pan I had waiting (with a nice starter of sauteed onion and garlic).

For flavouring the beans, I ground up some cumin seeds, and a touch of oregano, salt, and pepper.

Super quick and dead-easy, but these will make a lovely side dish.

So - after 15 minutes or so, I checked on the pasta.  I was fully prepared to throw this under the broiler for another few minutes to brown the top a bit more, but it ended up not needing it... so it was good to go!

We were so hungry and it smelled so good we didn't even let it rest before cracking it.

With a ramekin of beans on the side, looking tiny in comparison!

I find baked mac and cheese delightful sometimes.  The smooth, relatively uniform texture underneath is all soft and creamy, but is contrasted sharply with the crisp bite of the bread crumb layer on top.  Surprisingly sensual for the palate.

Let's not forget rich and delicious, either.