Macaroni and Cheese

Macaroni and cheese has been an American staple since the middle of the 19th century. In recent years, and with the idea of comfort food being an important part of the cuisine scene, macaroni and cheese has been making the rounds of some of the best restaurants across the country.

Recently, at a new restaurant in Chicago, I came across one of the more lavish versions of macaroni and cheese: it contained lobster meat. Talk about adding contemporary luxury to an old-fashioned dish. In this upscale mac ‘n’ cheese dish, the chef used a combination of mascarpone and fontina cheeses. The pasta was orzo.

Mac ‘n’ cheese is a menu item that is not age specific. Pre-teens, teenagers, young adults and adults of all ages enjoy this dish. 

The fact is that two basic ingredients — macaroni, cheese — can be the foundation for building an interesting and delicious array of creative dishes. How so? Think about the many different shapes and cuts of pasta on the market. Now think about the great variety of cheeses on the market. Once you have digested all the potential permutations that those two ingredients offer, think about what can be added to raise the level of simple mac ‘n’ cheese to another tier of interest.

To move forward on that last statement, here are two basic macaroni and cheese recipes for your consideration and pleasure. As you review these recipes keep in mind a few things. Yes, you can throw cooked pasta and grated cheese together and call it macaroni and cheese, but with the addition of a few simple ingredients you can raise the bar of enjoyment much, much higher.

Mac ‘n’ Cheese with Prosciutto

Makes 6 servings (recipe may be scaled up in direct proportion)

3/4 pound pennette (small penne) or elbow macaroni

1 3/4 cups grated fontina or asiago cheese

1 cup whipping cream

1 1/2 cup whole milk

1/4 pound prosciutto, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Lightly oil a 12-inch deep-dish pizza pan, or a baking pan that measures about 12 x 8. In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the pasta until it is not quite al dente. Drain.

In a large mixing bowl, combine 3/4 cups of the cheese, cream, milk, prosciutto, and Parmesan. Add the cooked macaroni and toss to combine once more. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Transfer the mixture to the pizza pan. Sprinkle the remaining 1 cup of cheese over the top. Bake in a preheated 400 F oven until the cheese melts and begins to brown lightly.

PREP POINTER

Cook the pasta ahead and toss with some olive oil. Allow to cool. Hold in plastic containers, covered, in the cooler. It will keep for 4 to 5 days.

Mac ‘n’ Cheese with Cheddar & Bacon

Makes 6 generous servings

A tempting combination of cheese, cheese sauce and bacon. It is made in three stages: cooking the pasta, making the topping, making the cheese sauce.

3/4 pound elbow or short macaroni

1/4 pound bacon, fried until crisp and coarsely chopped

Topping:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 cups Japanese bread crumbs (panko)

1/4 pound shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

Cheese Sauce:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 cups milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 pound shredded sharp cheddar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1/2 cup chicken stock or broth

1 teaspoon salt

ground pepper to taste

Cook the pasta in salted boiling water until almost al dente. Drain and reserve. For the topping, melt the butter and combine it with the bread crumbs and the cheddar. Mix well. Set aside.

For the cheese sauce: In a large heavy saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour. Cook the roux, stirring for about 3 minutes. Off the heat and whisk in the milk and the cream. Put the pan back over the heat. Bring to a simmer, whisking constantly, until it begins to thicken. Fold in the cheddar, mustard, chicken stock, salt and pepper.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the pasta, cooked bacon and cheese sauce. Transfer the mixture to a lightly oiled 3- to 4-quart baking dish. Level the top with the back of a spoon.

Spread the topping over the macaroni. Bake in a preheated 400 F oven for about 20-25 minutes, or until the top is golden and the sauce is bubbling.

PREP POINTERS 

§ The topping can be made ahead and stored in the cooler, covered, for 2 to 3 days.

§ The cheese sauce can be made ahead and held for 2 days in the cooler, covered. Reheat, adding chicken stock if necessary to achieve proper consistency.

OPTIONAL EXCITEMENT

§ Using the cheese sauce as your base, and blending in other flavors and ingredients, opens up an array of possibilities. 

§ Varying the cheeses, for example, by replacing the cheddar with a taco blend (available from food suppliers) creates an interesting Mexican style macaroni and cheese. I might choose to blend some cayenne pepper to the cheese sauce to zip things up a bit.

§ Adding a four-cheese Italian blend will turn the basic mac ‘n’ cheese into a decidedly Italian treat. To enhance that idea a bit more, I would incorporate some finely chopped pepperoni into the cheese sauce.

§ Swirling tomato puree in with the cheese sauce adds color and another dimension of flavor.

§ For a Mediterranean spin, fold in sun-dried tomatoes and olives to the basic recipe.

§ Grilled vegetables — eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers — added to the cheese sauce brings in the idea of vegetarian.

CREATIVE CHEESE BLENDING

To create your own signature macaroni and cheese dish, use various combinations of cheeses. Here are some suggestions.

§ Cheddar, mozzarella and Swiss

§ Gruyere, Emmentaler, and blue

§ Cheddar, mozzarella, Monterey Jack

§ Mozzarella, provolone, Parmesan

§ Havarti, Gruyere, Swiss

§ Flavored Jack, Cheddar, Mozzarella

§ Mascarpone, Fontina, Parmesan

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