I was given a challenge.
My challenge was to create my own version of a comfort food. I was assigned Macaroni and Cheese, which, yum!
The only problem was that I’d never before made macaroni and cheese other than out of a box. I know, I know. But it’s the kind of food that’s so BAD for you, the kind of thing we almost never eat, that even when we do make it from a box we put all kinds of veggies and stuff in it. I was tasked with making REAL macaroni and cheese. It was an interesting challenge.
I thought about my options for a while. I considered trying to make it into a dessert dish, kind of like a noodle kugel. I knew I’d be up against people making all sorts of fancy gourmet versions of their given foods, and people doing very traditional versions. I wanted to come up with something that would both stand out and be satisfying to those for whom macaroni and cheese, the real kind, is the ultimate in comfort food. Plus, I had to consider our tastes, knowing that we’d be eating the dish I made.
I thought about it, and I thought about it, and I came up with an idea in my head. Like many of the things I’ve cooked over the years, I didn’t really have the final plan until I was already in the middle of it. So you’ll see a few ingredients in the first photo that I didn’t ultimately end up using. And, because it was something I’d never made before, it took a heck of a lot longer than I expected it to. But the result was so, so worth it.
Cast of characters: Macaroni, chevre (goat cheese), scallions, shallots, nonfat milk, onion, flour, turkey bacon, pepper, salt, chipotle powder, parmesan, nonfat greek yogurt, butter, olive oil, extra sharp cheddar cheese, panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), bottle of yummy red wine
Step 0: Pour yourself a glass of tasty red wine. Pour one for your photographer as well.
Step one: Finely chop one small onion. Put it in a skillet with a tablespoon of butter over medium-low heat, stirring infrequently. You want the onion to get good and brown, without getting crispy. If it’s taking forever, like it did for me, add a splash of olive oil. When the onions have carmelized nicely, turn off the heat and set the pan aside.
Step 1.5: Turn on oven to 375F.
Step two: In a medium-sized heavy saucepan, melt 3 tablespoons butter until bubbly. Turn down heat. Add about 2-3 tablespoons of all-purpose flour, stirring constantly. It will get thick and pasty. Slowly add milk, continuing to stir, until mixture thins out and gets saucy.
Step 2.5: Put on a pot of water to boil. Add a bit of salt if you like. Don’t forget to drink some of your wine!
Step three: Grate 8 oz of extra sharp cheddar cheese, which will turn out to be about 2 cups grated. Slowly stir 1/2 the cheese (that’s one cup grated) into the milk/butter/flour sauce. Add about 1/4 cup of nonfat greek yogurt, salt and pepper to taste, and about 1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder.
Step 4: Mince 1 shallot and add it to the sauce. Continue to stir the sauce frequently so it doesn’t develop a skin on the top. When water boils, add about 1.5 dry cups of elbow macaroni to the water.
Step 5: Grate about 1/2 cup parmesan cheese and mix it with about 1/2 cup panko crumbs. Set aside.
Step 6: Open package of chevre. Tear about 1/2 cup of it into dime-sized pieces with your fingers and put on a plate. Set aside. Wash your hands.
Step 6.5: Cook 3 pieces of turkey bacon, drain. When cooled, chop into bits.
Step 7. When pasta is still firmly al dente, drain it and then add it to the cheese sauce, which you have not forgotten, right? Add the carmelized onions.
Step 8. Pour about 1/3 of the pasta/sauce into an 8×8 baking dish. Dot with 1/2 the goat cheese and 1/3 cup of the remaining grated cheddar. Top with pasta/sauce, repeat the goat cheese and cheddar. Add the bacon bits. Add the last of the pasta, top with the last 1/3 cup cheddar, and then over all add the panko/parmesan.
Step 9. Put it in the oven and bake until the top looks a bit browned and crispy, 20-30 minutes. While mac and cheese is baking, prepare anything else you plan to make. I sauteed some fresh asparagus in the carmelized onion pan with some seasonings and rice wine vinegar. Optional: Chop 2 scallions and sprinkle individual servings with the scallions.
Makes about 4-6 servings, depending on how much you like macaroni and cheese. Don’t forget to drink the rest of the wine!