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Warm and Cheesy Made Easy

All-American Macaroni and Cheese
South-of-the-Border Macaroni and Cheese
Veggie Macaroni and Cheese

A creamy, delicious aroma wafts through the house as a pan is taken from the oven. Family members and guests eagerly tuck in their napkins. The awaited dish couldn’t be more humble, or more scrumptious: homemade macaroni and cheese, enhanced with just enough special touches to take it from ordinary to Wow!

As the recipes here attest, there’s a reason mac ‘n’ cheese tops the list of favorite comfort foods for many of us. Rich and flavorful, with a texture that’s easy on the mouth, it’s the kind of dish that can make a cook a star without requiring a daunting amount of labor.

Any type of pasta can become a comforting plate of goodness; macaroni just happens to be among America’s top choices. The term maccheroni in Italian refers to dried pasta made without egg; it comes in a variety of shapes. In North America, macaroni is generally used as a name for a tubular and bent noodle, also referred to as elbow macaroni. The first renditions of macaroni were cooked in water or broth, with cheese sprinkled on top. Macaroni in Italy is served more often with tomato sauce than au gratin (baked in a white sauce with cheese).

Some questions trouble the history of macaroni – namely, where it came from and who introduced it. The most popular version is that Marco Polo brought macaroni back from China in 1295. Food historian Clifford Wright believes the Arabs invented macaroni after they lived in Sicily, where wheat was cultivated. Macaroni shipments from Sicily to Genoa were recorded in the 1100s.

From there, maccheroni became a popular food in Italy. Italians perfected the art of macaroni making during the Renaissance, and it became a staple food, eventually spreading throughout Europe. English colonists brought it to the New World.

The first pasta factory opened in Philadelphia in the late 1700s. Even-tually, more factories opened and the price went down, allowing the working class to afford macaroni. Recipes were published in cookbooks of the 1800s.

Mac ‘n’ cheese today

In 1937, Kraft Foods introduced a macaroni and cheese dinner in a box, and it quickly became a favorite American comfort food. Today, Kraft claims to sell a million boxes of macaroni and cheese dinners a day.

Americans love mac ‘n’ cheese, as we affectionately call it. Macaroni and cheese is a culinary classic as well as a comfort food, but it’s full of calories and fat. Enjoy this legendary dish as a comfort food every now and then, whether it’s served as a warming winter supper or a special celebratory meal, but it may not be a food to be eaten on a regular basis.

To help cut calories, use lower fat milk, such as 2 percent (I have even made macaroni and cheese with soy milk), and use less cheese. Using whole-wheat pasta gives the dish more fiber and better nutritional value; I tend to use half whole-wheat and half semolina pasta. I add vegetables to my mac ‘n’ cheese to make the dish more healthful.

About those ingredients . . .

For a different take on the classic, experiment with different cheeses and use them in combinations. Fancy restaurants often feature four-cheese macaroni – do this at home and come up with winning combinations. The flavor of a smoked Swiss or Gouda can be a tasty addition in small amounts. Adults tend to like Swiss, Gruyere, blue and goat cheeses more than children do. Cheddar remains a top favorite. The cheese can be cubed in small chunks or grated.

Most macaroni and cheese dishes use a white sauce as the base and melt cheese into it. The white sauce can be made with cream, half-and-half, milk or low-fat milk. You can substitute up to a cup of milk with a cup of vegetable, chicken or mushroom stock. A small amount of flour is added, and the sauce cooked briefly to thicken slightly.

I flavor the sauce by starting with onions and garlic (both raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol), and I use fresh or dried herbs and spices to give zest and flavor, as well as color, to the dish.

After you have your sauce, begin melting the cheese in it. Taste as you go. Keep in mind that this sauce is going over a pound of pasta, so it needs to be flavorful, or the final dish will be bland.

If you are adding vegetables, they should be cooked al dente, then added in layers or along with the pasta. They can be oven-roasted, grilled or steamed. Cut the veggies into appropriate-sized pieces to go with the pasta.

Whether you make pasta for a casserole or a salad, add just a smidgen of olive oil after you’ve drained it to keep it from clumping together. Then season with salt, pepper and a squeezed clove of fresh garlic. Toss and let it sit until you’re ready to use it. This gives the pasta a good background flavor and helps prevent a bland dish. Cook your pasta al dente for mac ‘n’ cheese, since it will be baked again.

Your choices for pasta don’t have to be limited to macaroni – you can mix shapes for texture and interest. Just pay attention to cooking times – some may cook in 7 minutes while others might take 12 minutes – so add them separately. I like shells called conchiglie; fusilli or rotini, which are also called spirale or twists; and farfalle, which are butterfly-shaped. Penne rigate is another of my favorites. Anytime the term rigate is used after a pasta type it means the noodle has ridges; it derives from the word rigare, which means ridged or grooved, and sauces stick better to this type of noodle.

Once you combine the sauce with pasta, you can serve it right then, or put it in a casserole dish, top with cheese or bread crumbs and broil it to brown the top a little. I like to bake it awhile so the macaroni softens and soaks up the sauce and cheese, and the top gets crunchy. The topping of choice is generally fine, dry breadcrumbs sprinkled over all. Others gild the lily and add grated cheese; a combination of both is good. For fun, I add crushed tortilla chips to the south-of-the-border version.

Pasta tends to absorb much of the liquid, especially if it sits for a while, so drizzle on a little milk when you reheat. Leftover mac ‘n’ cheese for breakfast is something you have to get downstairs early for – otherwise, someone else will have gotten there first! Try one of these versions of mac ‘n’ cheese on someone you love. It’s a great dish to take to your next potluck dinner and can be made a day ahead. It also can be frozen, thawed and reheated at 350ºF until heated through.

All-American Macaroni and Cheese

A simple, homey dish, this version doesn’t have a lot of spice but is a satisfying comfort food. Experiment with other cheeses; I usually use at least 1 cup cheddar, along with about 1/2 to 1 cup of smoked Swiss cheese.

1 pound macaroni, bowtie or shell noodles, cooked al dente, drained in colander and tossed with 1 teaspoon olive oil and 1 clove pressed garlic, and seasoned lightly with salt and freshly ground pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
About 1 cup chopped onion
4 tablespoons unbleached flour
2 to 3 large cloves garlic, minced or pressed
4 cups whole milk, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons mustard powder
2 teaspoons fresh minced thyme and/or marjoram, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme and/or marjoram leaves, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
About 2 cups grated cheddar cheese, plus 1/2 cup for topping, divided
4 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley, optional

Heat oven to 350°F. Butter 2-quart baking dish; set aside.

Cook pasta while preparing sauce; follow instructions above for draining in colander.

In nonreactive sauté pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add flour and stir for about 3 minutes.

Add garlic and stir 1 minute more. Add 1 cup milk and stir well to blend. Add remaining milk, whisking to get rid of any lumps. Add paprika, mustard powder, thyme and/or marjoram, salt and pepper.

When sauce is hot, sprinkle in about 1 cup cheese and stir well. When melted, add second cup cheese and stir well. Carefully taste sauce to see if it needs more salt or pepper. Place half the macaroni in bottom of prepared dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cover with half the sauce. Repeat with remaining macaroni and cover with remaining sauce.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes; spread remaining 1/2 cup cheese over top and bake for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and allow dish to sit for at least 5 minutes before serving. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley, if desired. Yields 6 to 8 servings.

South-of-the-Border Macaroni and Cheese

This is a zesty version of mac ‘n’ cheese. Roasted chiles are delicious here, and I’ve used Southwestern herbs like cumin and cilantro to complement this dish. If you do not like cilantro, use Italian oregano instead, or some parsley combined with the more piquant Greek or Mexican oreganos. If you don’t like it too spicy, then use all cheddar.

1 pound macaroni, bowtie or shell noodles, cooked al dente, drained in colander and tossed with 1 teaspoon olive oil and 1 clove pressed garlic, and seasoned lightly with salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup chopped onion
4 tablespoons unbleached flour
2 to 3 large cloves garlic, minced or pressed
4 cups whole milk, divided
1 teaspoon paprika
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seed, toasted and ground
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup grated cheddar cheese, divided
1 cup grated jalapeño or habanero Jack cheese, divided
1/2 cup salsa
About 1/2 cup fresh chopped cilantro leaves
4 to 6 large green chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded and cut into strips Tortilla chips, about 1 cup crushed

Heat oven to 350°F. Butter 2-quart baking dish; set aside.

Cook pasta while preparing the sauce; follow instructions above for draining in colander.

In nonreactive sauté pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add flour and stir for about 3 minutes. Add garlic and stir 1 minute more. Add 1 cup milk and stir well to blend. Add remaining milk, whisking to get rid of any lumps. Add paprika, cumin, salt and pepper.

When sauce is hot, sprinkle in half the cheeses and stir well. When melted, add half the remaining cheeses and stir well. Stir in salsa and cilantro; remove from heat. Carefully taste sauce to see if it needs more salt or pepper, or a little more cumin. Toss cooked macaroni with green chiles. Place half the macaroni and chiles in bottom of prepared dish; season lightly with salt and pepper. Spread half the sauce over macaroni. Repeat another layer with remaining macaroni and chiles and sauce; spread remaining cheese over top. Scatter crushed tortilla chips over top.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow dish to stand for at least 5 minutes before serving. Yields 6 to 8 servings.

Veggie Macaroni and Cheese

This is a sumptuous, substantial one-dish meal. Use any vegetables you like – sweet bell peppers, squash, eggplant, onions and mushrooms are all good oven-roasted or grilled – in a combination of just two or three or all of them. Experiment with your veggies according to what’s in season; sometimes I use broccoli and orange winter squash or carrots, or leeks or asparagus with mushrooms. I love the flavor of shiitakes, though domestic mushrooms, or even dried and reconstituted porcini mushrooms work well in this dish.

Made in the traditional style of the Italian béchamel, this recipe calls for parmesan; however, feel free to improvise. If you are feeding an unadventurous group, use traditional cheddar. You can halve this recipe to serve less since it does make a lot; or better yet, divide it into two casserole dishes, have one for supper and freeze the other.

For the roasted veggies:
6 to 8 cups raw vegetables, cut into large bite-sized pieces
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Few sprigs of Italian oregano, or generous 1 teaspoon dried leaves, crumbled

Heat oven to 400°F. Spread veggies on large baking sheet. Drizzle olive oil over veggies, generously season with salt and pepper, and toss with oregano.

Roast veggies 20 to 25 minutes, turning occasionally, or in grill basket over medium-hot fire. The vegetables should be cooked al dente since they will be baked in casserole. Once cooked, there will be about 4 to 6 cups veggies, since they cook down. (This can be done ahead of time – even the night before.)

For the casserole:
1 pound macaroni, bowtie or shell noodles, cooked al dente, drained in colander and tossed with 1 teaspoon olive oil and 1 clove pressed garlic, and seasoned lightly with salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 bay leaves
About 1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed and torn into pieces
8 to 10 large cloves garlic, slivered lengthwise
4 tablespoons unbleached flour
2 cups whole milk and 2 cups cream, or 4 cups half-and-half, divided
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fresh minced Italian oregano, or 2 teaspoons dried Italian oregano, crumbled
3 pinches cayenne pepper
Scant 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
2/3 cup dried breadcrumbs mixed with 1/3 cup Parmigiano

Heat oven to 350°F. Butter 2- to 3-quart baking dish; set aside.

Cook pasta while preparing sauce; follow instructions above for draining in colander.

In nonreactive sauté pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add bay leaves and mushrooms, cover and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlic and stir 1 minute more. Add flour and stir for about 3 minutes. Stir in 1 cup milk/cream and stir well to blend. Add remaining milk/cream, whisking to get rid of any lumps. Add oregano, cayenne and nutmeg; season with salt and pepper.

When sauce is hot, sprinkle in half the cheese and stir well. When melted, add remaining cheese; stir well. Carefully taste sauce to see if it needs more salt or pepper. Place half the cooked vegetables in bottom of prepared dish and spread half the macaroni over vegetables. Season lightly with salt and pepper; spoon half the sauce over all. Repeat another layer with remaining vegetables, macaroni, salt, pepper and sauce. Sprinkle breadcrumb mixture over top.

Bake for about 25 minutes. If top isn’t golden brown, place dish under broiler for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to stand for at least 5 minutes before serving. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley, if desired. Yields 8 main-dish servings, or 12 side-dish servings.


Susan Belsinger takes her cooking, and her mac ‘n’ cheese, very seriously at her home in Brookeville, Maryland.

Published on Nov 1, 2007
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