21st-Century Mac 'n' Cheese
Excerpted from The Splendid Table's® How to Eat Supper: Recipes, Stories and Opinions from Public Radio's Award-Winning Food Show by Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2008). Copyright © 2008 by American Public Media.
Serves 4, and doubles easily
8 to 10 minutes prep time; 30 minutes oven time
You could assemble the dish a day ahead to bake when you walk in the door
Never underestimate the healing power of macaroni and cheese at the end of a day from hell. Make this as rich as you'd like by selecting milk, half-and-half, or heavy cream.
3 quarts salted water in a 4-quart pot
1/2 pound (2 cups) imported elbow macaroni or penne pasta
1 large egg
1 cup milk, half-and-half, or heavy cream
1 small garlic clove
3/4 medium onion, coarse chopped
1 generous cup (5 ounces) shredded good-quality extra-sharp cheddar cheese
5 ounces cream cheese, crumbled
2/3 cup (3 ounces) shredded Gruyère, Appenzeller, or Manchego cheese
Generous 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Generous 1/8 teaspoon salt
Generous 1/8 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
Generous 1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika, Hungarian or Spanish
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 saltines, coarse crumbled
1. Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop in the macaroni or penne. Boil, stirring often, until the pasta is tender but still with a little firmness. Drain in a colander.
2. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Butter a shallow 1-1/2-quart baking dish, and add the cooked macaroni.
3. In a blender or food processor, combine the egg, milk, and garlic. Process for 3 seconds. Add the onion, cheeses, red pepper flakes, salt, black pepper, and paprika, and blend for 10 seconds, or until the onion is cut down to small pieces and the ingredients are blended. Turn the mixture into the dish, folding it into the macaroni. (The casserole could be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to 24 hours at this point.)
4. To bake, bring the casserole close to room temperature if it has been refrigerated. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, add the saltine crumbles, and coat them with the butter. Spread them over the top of the casserole. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until thick yet creamy. If the top is not golden brown, slip the casserole under the broiler for a minute. Remove it from the oven, let it stand for 5 minutes, and serve.
An egg and cream cheese are the secret ingredients here. They give creaminess and body to the dish so you can sidestep the time-consuming white sauce often called for in macaroni and cheese recipes.
The Gruyère, Appenzeller, or Manchego cheese gives a nuttiness and another layer of flavor beyond cheddar cheese alone.
Quality imported pasta makes a difference. You'll notice the wheaty flavor and substantial texture and chew.