Macaroni and Cheese

It's that time of year again: FINALS WEEK.

I apologize for going AWOL on you all this week, when I had fortold of this most excellent, awesome, favorite macaroni and cheese from Ina Garten last Saturday.  My dad scooped me up from campus that morning and we went gallavanting about Chicago, gathering goodies from here and there, eating everything in sight, and making copious amounts of macaroni and cheese.  We had a lovely time of it, and he sent me home that night with a full belly, much needed R&R and daddy-daughter time, and an armful of goodies, including two pans full of the aforementioned mac n' cheese.  Needless to say, John and I have survived these late tenth-week-of-the-quarter, ominous-with-impending-doom nights by the forkful.

I've been using this recipe in particular for years now.  Whenever I've wanted to make mac n' cheese, this was the go-to recipe, because it's pretty much perfect.  I sometimes change the cheese ratios, add in extra ingredients here and there, revamp the crust; but really, this recipe doesn't need much fiddling.  If you're afraid of the butter, the whole milk, or the cheese, well, you should be eating a salad instead of this.  I'm weary of the American tendency to rework decidedly non-diet-friendly recipes in order to make them diet-friendly - to want your cake and eat a Lean Cuisine too.

That's not to say I don't try to rework recipes to include more wholesome sweeteners or fats - I sometimes make my favorite banana bread recipe with Muscavado sugar, a whole-wheat-all-purpose flour mix, and yogurt.  If you remember my rant about the wholesome-healthy distinction, my food philosophy revolves around respect for both my ingredients and my body.  My body benefits from eating a salad in a different way than from eating a brownie, but when these extremes are balanced, so is my body.  And just as I respect the vegetables, cheeses, and other ingredients in my salad, I respect the chocolate and butter I use in my brownies.  I don't try to put apple sauce, whole wheat flour, and Sucanat into my favorite brownie recipe not only because the chemistry will be off (since that recipe wasn't meant for such substitutions), but also because it becomes a Special-K bar instead of a brownie.  By respect for ingredients, I mean that I consciously bring ingredients together that will complement one another, such that each bite is a cohesive thought - so that you don't take a bite and say, there's something missing.  Now, clearly I don't always achieve this, and at 1 in the morning the only effort I'm interested in expending on my food is making toast with jam; but hopefully, you understand my overall concept here.

In terms of this recipe, I'm imploring you not to say ooooh I'm craving mac n' cheese but it's so bad for me, so I'll just use skim milk, whole wheat pasta, reduced fat cheese... because you've missed the point. The point of macaroni and cheese is to realize that you're indulging, and to accept fully that responsibility.  And to enjoy every forkful of it.  You can go to the gym later.

Macaroni and Cheese

~5 teaspoons Kosher salt
1 pound pasta (I like to use cavatappi, the curly ones that look like long elbow macaroni)
1 quart, or 4 c, whole milk (if you just have 1 or 2% on hand, you can use either of those also)
1 stick unsalted butter
.5 c all purpose flour (Wondra flour also works here)
20 ounces, or 6 c, grated cheese (I like 1 part Gruyere to 2 parts extra-sharp Cheddar)
.5 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
.5 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1.5 c Panko bread crumbs
.5 c grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  In a saucepan over medium heat, warm the milk, stirring often.  Bring a large stock pot half-full of water to a boil, then add ~1 tablespoon of salt and the pasta.  When the pasta is just under al dente (when you bite into it, there will still be a bit of unpleasant chewiness in the middle, so it's slightly under-done), remove from the heat, drain, and add back to the pot.

Meanwhile, in another saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.  Whisk in the flour, then cook ~2 minutes to remove the raw flour taste.  Add in the warm milk, whisking to prevent lumps from forming.  Let the sauce come to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and stir in the cheese.  It's easier to do this in batches, adding one handful at a time and letting it melt almost completely before adding another.  Stir in the black pepper, nutmeg, and ~2 teaspoons salt to taste.  Add the sauce immediately to the pot of pasta.  You want to time the sauce so that it's waiting for your pasta to be done, not the other way around.

Pour the pasta with cheese sauce into a baking dish.  You're going to think there's too much sauce, but trust me, the pasta will soak up the extra sauce as it cooks and cools down to eating temperature.  In a small bowl, combine the bread crumbs and Parmesan, then sprinkle it over the top.  Bake for ~35 minutes until golden brown and bubbly.

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