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Published: Monday, 2/7/2011

Comfort food: Sometimes only mac and cheese will do

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

Oprah Winfrey told talk-show host Piers Morgan recently 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 also was in the news 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, 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 healthier, 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 now has 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 stovetop 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 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 mega-rich 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.



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