A New Twist To An Old Favorite: Macaroni & Cheese

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As quintessential American fare, especially for African-Americans and Southerners, how can I have a food blog and not cover macaroni and cheese? While the thick, creamy richness of mac and cheese doesn’t quite fit in with my attempts to eat, cook, and write about nutritious and nourishing food, I have a hard time banishing this dish out of my kitchen forever!

Yes, change can be good, but macaroni and cheese taps into that soft spot in my heart for tradition and nostalgia. Mac and cheese is like a cornerstone of family gatherings, church functions and potluck dinners with friends. I can’t deny its delicious place in my culture or culinary history.

Now does that mean I’m going to eat it every day? No, but on occasion, I will indulge in this comfort food favorite, preferably with a light side dish of green vegetables or a salad rather than a full spread of other heavy foods. I have no problem breaking from that tradition.

Image 1: Shredded Cheese on wax paper; Image 2: Spiced roux in a small sauce pot beside a pan of toasted, buttered panko breadcrumbs

So the question has come up repeatedly among my friends of how to make a good macaroni and cheese. I’ve discovered from friends, family and various cookbooks that there are many approaches to mac and cheese. Of course all the basics are included every time – pasta and cheese, butter and usually milk, but there’s lots of variety out there to achieve various consistencies and levels of cheesiness.

Some people like their mac and cheese ultra creamy and ultra cheesy with an almost liquid-like consistency. Others like their mac and cheese firm, but not dry. Some recipes call for canned cheddar cheese soup, others cheese wiz (processed goo, yuck!), or my family’s old reliable – evaporated milk. But then, there’s the original approach to macaroni and cheese, which is to make a roux turning it into a white sauce (béchamel) as the thickening agent for the dish.

Image 1: Uncookeed marcaroni in a stainless steel bowl; Image 2: Baked macaroni and cheese

Since I’m interested in going back to the basics with a lot of my cooking and discovering some of those classic approaches to recipes, the roux/white sauce approach is the one I’ve been working on. Although it diverges from how most folks in my family make their mac and cheese, I still stick to the portions and guidance of my mom’s recipe, with the exception of my addition of buttered panko breadcrumbs to the top, which my clan normally doesn’t do.

If you haven’t tried the roux/white sauce approach before, give my recipe a try. It has a loose, but still somewhat firm consistency. Also, I’d love to know your macaroni and cheese traditions. What’s your secret or preference for the best mac and cheese?

Macaroni and Cheese

8 oz. small macaroni pasta
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
6 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, grated (1-1/2 four oz. packages)
1/2 cup paprika white sauce (see recipe below)
1 large egg
1/4 cup organic milk
3 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Bring a large pot of water with 1 tablespoon kosher salt to a boil. Add macaroni and boil for about 7 minutes until al dente. Drain and set aside in a large bowl. Lightly butter an 8” x 8” baking dish and set aside. In a small sauté pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add panko breadcrumbs and toss to coat for about 2 – 3 minutes. Set aside.

Add half the grated cheese to the bowl of cooked macaroni. In another small bowl, mix together the white sauce, milk, water and egg. Add the mixture to macaroni and cheese and mix well. Add salt and pepper and stir well. Pour macaroni and cheese mixture into the buttered baking dish. Sprinkle remaining cheese over top, then sprinkle buttered breadcrumbs over the dish. Place dish on the center rack in the middle of the oven and bake for 25 minutes.

Paprika White Sauce

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup organic milk
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 pinch salt

Melt butter in a small sauce pan over medium-low heat. Stir in the flour until a smooth paste forms, about one minute. Add milk and stir continuously for about 10 minutes. Sauce will thicken. The sauce is done when it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Stir in paprika and salt. Use sauce in cooking or store remaining sauce in an air tight container in the refrigerator for up to three days.



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