Macaroni and cheese has always been a favorite at our house. Sometimes it's made with colby cheese melted in a white sauce and sometimes the cheese is sliced and layered across the top of the cooked elbow macaroni.
When I want to get fancy (or is that old-fashioned?), I use my grandmother's method of topping the baked dish with buttered cracker crumbs.
A couple of weeks ago, as I was cleaning out my freezer I found some frozen roasted pumpkin that I had made in October. When I added it to a recipe from Macaroni & Cheese by Marlena Spieler (Chronicle, $16.95), it opened a whole new world of mac and cheese to me.
The result was Gemelli with Pumpkin and Sage, an adaptation of her dish made with cicatelli pasta. It was delicious and reheated well in the microwave.
That is how I discovered a variety of pastas with names such as gemelli, the pasta known as "twins" for its two intertwined thickish strands, and cicatelli, a half hollow/half open, somewhat chewy pasta.
I also tried a variety of cheeses in this dish including fontina and fresh parmesan and realized that you could make a different macaroni and cheese dish every night of the week and still have new versions to try the next week without ever getting this classic comfort food out of the box.
It's a great food for the Lenten season, as well as being perfect for vegetarian meals. By adding vegetables such as pumpkin, broccoli, or peas, you can add more vitamins to the dish.
I was so taken with Gemelli with Pumpkin and Sage that I later roasted two little pumpkins I still had in storage, freezing the vegetable for later preparations of this recipe. The dish can also be made with hubbard or butternut squash. Note that the recipe calls for four ounces of prosciutto ham; for vegetarians, omit the prosciutto. The combination of fontina and freshly grated parmesan was superb, creamy, and comforting.
A surprise ingredient was three to five tablespoons of creme fraiche. (In my traditional baked mac and cheese recipe, I use milk.) The rest of the seven-ounce container of creme fraiche lingered in my refrigerator for two weeks until I made Alpine Macaroni with Creme Fraiche. I wanted to use up the (still good) thickened cream. And I was not sorry.
Adapting Ms. Spieler's recipe, I put my own spin on this one-pot recipe that was as quick to fix as standard boxed macaroni. Quite frankly, Alpine Macaroni with Creme Fraiche is magnificently better tasting than boxed mac, with a flavor reminiscent of Swiss fondue, minus the white wine.
Here's the secret: Ms. Spieler's recipe calls for Appenzeller, Emmenthal, Gruyere, or Comte cheese. On a run to the closest supermarket, I found a package of ungrated Gruyere at nearly $10 for less than eight ounces. Instead, I bought a package of shredded Swiss cheese for $2 per eight ounces and combined it with a little fontina and grated fresh parmesan that was still in my refrigerator. With the addition of the creme fraiche and a half cup of hot cooking water for creaminess, the resulting macaroni had the color of Swiss fondue and the texture of melted cheese. It was delicious.
Then there's the cheesiness of baked macaroni and cheese. This depends on the amount and kind of cheese you layer across the al dente macaroni in a casserole dish. Sharper cheddar cheeses do not melt as well as colby, so they do not produce as creamy a product. Many cooks like processed and American cheeses, probably with higher fat content. (The best creamy macaroni and cheese dishes do not use low-fat cheese.)
If you want the sharp cheddar flavor, it is best to melt the shredded cheese in a white sauce or bechamel sauce.
Baked macaroni and cheese is a crowd-pleaser that is great for potlucks, picnics, and family dinners. For a spicier flavor, add andouille sausage with cheddar cheese or jalapeno pepper with Monterey Jack cheese. Some cooks even splash Tabasco in their crumb topping.
Robust cheeses such as blue and smoked gouda are also possibilities to use in macaroni and cheese.
In Gordon Ramsey Makes It Easy (Wiley, $24.95), Macaroni Cheese with Blue Cheese and Mushrooms is finished in a gratin dish and placed under the broiler. I tend to cut back on the butter in chef recipes (this recipe called for four tablespoons of butter - I would use one tablespoon) to reduce fat and calories. But for those who love blue cheese, this dish is quick and easy.
Even within the realm of blue cheese, you can pick gorgonzola or Roquefort, Maytag blue or Danish blue.
Other flavored cheeses are sure to put new spins of flavor on macaroni and cheese. There are English Applewood Smoked Cheddar, Kerrygold Irish Blarney, asiago, and even goat cheese such as pecorino.
As for macaroni, try farfalle (butterfly or bowtie-shaped flat pasta), short-tubed rigatoni, or ziti. I love the shells called conchiglie. The little elbow macaroni, whether traditional or whole wheat, is a staple in any pantry.
Bechamel, the classic white sauce, is made by stirring milk into a butter-flour roux. The thickness of the sauce depends on the proportion of flour and butter to milk. A thin sauce would be one tablespoon each of butter and flour per one cup of milk. A medium sauce uses two tablespoons each of butter and flour to one cup of milk.
If you aren't using a sauce and just layer the cheese, plan on cooking eight ounces macaroni for a two-quart baking casserole dish. Divide into three layers of macaroni topped with American processed or colby cheese to cover and salt and pepper as desired; then sprinkle one half to one cup of milk over all before baking at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes.
Try giving a new twist to homemade macaroni and cheese and you'll never be boxed in again.
Kathie Smith is The Blade's food editor.
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