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Mac and cheese dishes go for comfort, creativity

It's not every day that macaroni and cheese makes news.

Oprah Winfrey told talk show host Piers Morgan last week that after her movie Beloved tanked in 1998, she binged on 30 pounds of mac and cheese. Our good twin knows that wasn't healthy, but our bad twin totally understands. Somehow, we just aren't wired to handle disappointment with an apple and carrot sticks.

Mac and cheese was also in the news this month when a homeless Ohio man, found to have a golden radio voice, was hired to record a Kraft TV commercial about its home-style creamy noodles. The instant fame (Today Show, Dr. Phil, viral YouTube video) took its toll and Ted Williams ended up in rehab, where something comforting was surely needed.

And just-released federal guidelines, intended to make school lunches more healthful, have people talking about retooling the childhood staple with whole-wheat pasta and a serious reduction in fat.

For all its naughty tendencies, we love macaroni and cheese. It's a staple on the Southern table for family gatherings and holidays. It's a go-to meal for finicky kids and broke college students. And it has now popped up on lots of menus, sometimes even gilded with delicate lobster or earthy truffle oil.

Making mac and cheese at home is a simple proposition, though lots of us reach for the box. Many kids get their first taste of the dish prepared with cheese powder that comes with the neon-colored Kraft version. Once they get a taste of that, it's difficult to get them to change. But it's worth the effort.

The key to good macaroni and cheese is a creamy sauce, and lots of it. Though it's nice to have some crispy noodles on the top and edges, the pasta should not be dried throughout.

There are primarily two ways to make mac and cheese. The traditional Southern method includes mixing milk or cream and grated cheese or Velveeta right into the hot pasta, along with some dried mustard. The starch released from the pasta thickens the sauce. From this point, the dish can be eaten as is — a stove-top version — or baked in a casserole dish or 9- by 13-inch pan.

The other popular method is to make a roux (flour and butter), then add liquid (milk, cream or even stock or a combination) to make a thick sauce. (With milk or cream, this is the basic French sauce called bechamel.) Then the grated cheese is stirred into the sauce until it melts and the mixture is combined with cooked pasta. That's macaroni and cheese in its truest sense.

Both versions are delicious, though the roux version has more fat and some might say more flavor. It's probably not so comforting to know that most mac and cheeses pack about 650 calories a serving with more than 40 grams of fat. Using low-fat cheese and milk helps cut both. Also, reduced-fat evaporated milk contributes to a creamy sauce while keeping fat under control.

Rather than try to master a fat-free mac and cheese, which is likely to be unsatisfying, it's better to watch your portions and serve a green vegetable and perhaps a salad alongside. But if mac and cheese is the only thing on the menu, chances are you will eat double or triple helpings.

Any small, hollow pasta pairs well with cheese sauce. Penne rigate, small shells or elbows are the best because they let the sauce nestle inside them. Orecchiette (little ears, in Italian) is a good choice, too, because the sauce can nestle into the small indentation of the pasta. In general, cook the pasta until just al dente before mixing with the cheese sauce, especially if you'll be finishing the dish in the oven.

Cheese is another ingredient you can experiment with. It should be a cheese that melts well, and that includes cheddar, Jack, blue, Swiss, Gruyere, goat cheese or even mascarpone, the extra-thick Italian cream cheese. Parmesan adds a tangy touch to the top of a baked macaroni and cheese. Some cooks use cottage or ricotta cheeses.

I like to use a combination of cheeses, which is why the Ina Garten recipe that calls for Gruyere and extra-sharp cheddar suits me. At the suggestion of a friend, I make more sauce so that the noodles, which tend to soak it in while baking, are really swimming in creamy goodness.

Some recipes call for eggs, which makes the dish more custardlike, as in Swiss Mac With Potatoes. I liked the taste of Swiss cheese mingled with sticks of soft potato.

The recipes that accompany this story are basic mac and cheese dishes using slightly different techniques. Ideas to boost interest and flavor:

• Add 1 cup of diced ham before baking.

• Top with a mixture of bread crumbs and grated Parmesan.

• Mix in frozen, thawed veggies such as spinach or peas. (If using fresh vegetables, blanch for a few minutes before adding.)

• Stir in 1 or 2 chopped chipotle peppers in adobo sauce or 2 cans chopped, drained mild green chilies.

• Combine sauteed mushrooms with the pasta mixture.

• Top with sliced tomatoes before baking.

• Incorporate fresh herbs such as parsley, basil, thyme or oregano.

• Experiment with seafood. If lobster isn't on your budget, consider shrimp or scallops. Cook before adding to pasta mixture.

Not sure if Oprah's massive mac attack included lobster. I do know that the megarich media magnate is likely the only one who could afford it. While I wait to win the lottery, I'll mix up a poor man's batch, which is plenty rich for me.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8586.

ON THE WEB

In Janet's Kitchen

For a video demonstration by Janet K. Keeler on how to make macaroni and cheese, go to links.tampabay.com.

>>easy

Swiss Mac With Potatoes

Butter for baking pan

½ pound elbow macaroni

1 medium potato, peeled and sliced ½ inch thick, with slices cut into 1 ½-inch strips

Coarse salt

2 cups (8 ounces) coarsely grated Swiss cheese

3 eggs, lightly beaten

2 cups whole milk

Freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9- by 13-inch baking pan.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat and cook the pasta until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain.

Place the potato strips in a medium pot and cover with cold water by an inch or two. Add 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to simmer and cook until the potatoes are softened but still firm, 8 to 9 minutes. Drain.

Layer the cooked macaroni, potatoes and cheese in the baking pan, ending with a layer of cheese (there should be two full layers of each ingredient). In a small bowl, mix the eggs, milk, salt and pepper and pour over macaroni mixture. Bake on the middle rack until hot and bubbly, 20 to 25 minutes.

Serves 4.

Source: Macaroni & Cheese:
Recipes From Simple to Sublime by Joan Schwartz (Villard, 2001)

>>easy

Panko-Crusted Mac and Cheese

Butter for the pan

1 pound penne rigate

2 cups heavy cream

2 cups whole milk

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg, freshly grated preferred

2 cups (8 ounces) grated cheddar cheese

1 ½ cups (about 5 to 6 ounces) grated Monterey Jack cheese

Coarse salt

Freshly ground pepper

½ cup panko bread crumbs

2 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley

2 teaspoons grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9- by 13-inch baking pan.

Bring 6 quarts of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, 9 to 10 minutes. Drain.

Combine the cream, milk, cayenne and nutmeg in a large saucepan over medium-high heat and reduce by half, about 15 minutes. (Once the mixture starts to simmer, stir to break the layer of foam so that it will not boil over.) Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the cheddar and Jack cheeses, and whisk until well blended. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the penne and stir vigorously (take care not to break the pasta). This will release starch and help to thicken the sauce.

Pour or spoon the pasta into the prepared baking dish. Combine the panko, parsley and Parmesan and sprinkle over the pasta. Bake until bubbly and golden, about 15 minutes.

Serves 6 to 10.

Source: Macaroni & Cheese:
Recipes From Simple to Sublime by Joan Schwartz (Villard, 2001)

>>moderate

Ina Garten's Mac and Cheese (pictured on Page 1E)

Kosher salt

Vegetable oil

1 pound elbow macaroni or cavatappi

1 quart milk

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided use

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

12 ounces Gruyere or Swiss, grated (3 cups)

8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar, grated (2 cups)

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3/4 pound fresh tomatoes (4 small)

1 1/2 cups fresh white bread crumbs (5 slices, crusts removed)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Drizzle oil into a large pot of boiling, salted water. Add the macaroni and cook according to the directions on the package, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain well.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan, but don't boil it. Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large (4-quart) pot and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring with a whisk. While whisking, add the hot milk and cook for a minute or two more, until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, add the cheeses, pepper and nutmeg. Add salt to taste. Add the cooked macaroni and stir well. Pour into a 3-quart baking dish.

Slice the tomatoes and arrange on top. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, combine them with the fresh bread crumbs and sprinkle on top. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the macaroni is browned on the top.

Serves 6 to 8.


Source: Ina Garten, Food Network

>>easy

Lighter Macaroni and Cheese

Salt

3/8 pound elbow macaroni, (about 2 cups)

1 (12-ounce) can of 2 percent reduced-fat evaporated milk

2/3 cup of 2 percent low-fat milk

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder, or celery salt (optional)

1 pinch cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons cornstarch

8 ounces 50 percent light cheddar cheese, grated (about 2 cups)

Bring 2 1/2 quarts water to a boil in a large saucepan. Stir in 2 teaspoons salt and the macaroni; cook until the pasta is completely cooked and tender, about 5 minutes. Drain the pasta and leave it in the colander; set aside.

Add the evaporated milk, 1/2 cup of the 2 percent milk, mustard, garlic powder (if using), cayenne and 1/2 teaspoon salt to the now-empty saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Whisk the cornstarch and remaining 1/4 cup milk together, then whisk it into the simmering mixture. Continue to simmer, whisking constantly, until the sauce has thickened and is smooth, about 2 minutes.

Off the heat, gradually whisk in cheddar until melted and smooth. Stir in the macaroni, and let it sit off the heat until the sauce has thickened slightly, 2 to 5 minutes, before serving.

Serves 5.

Nutritional information per serving: 419 calories, 21g fat (13g saturated), 402mg sodium, 35g carbohydrates, 1g fiber, 22g protein.

Source: America's Test Kitchen

ON THE WEB

Mac and cheese dishes go for comfort, creativity 01/25/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 27, 2011 4:13pm]
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