Photos: Laura Hobbs
Saturday night, I had the house to myself. The TV was off, the PJs were on, I had a glass of wine in hand and a facial mask haphazardly smeared upon my face. Reclined on the couch, I was determined – DETERMINED, I say! – to make a third attempt at reading French Women Don’t Get Fat.
You see, my past two attempts at reading this book have ended with me throwing the book down in frustrated disgust, resentful of the author for her luxurious, debonair lifestyle and her annoying self-control, and depressed that I – being the frazzled, self-loathing American woman that I am – cannot adopt such a constitution. I eat in front of the TV. I use paper towels as napkins. I do not stop at one potato chip. So sue me!
This is not to say, however, that I don’t realize the importance of balanced nutrition or adhere to good eating habits. For the most part, I am very conscious of what I eat, what ingredients I use in cooking and what toxins I choose to put into my body. There are occasions, though, when I feel I am well-deserving of a sinful, waist-expanding treat; and these occasions seem to grow more and more frequent during the winter, when the days are short and the wind is bone-chilling. This weekend marked one of those occasions.
For some, macaroni & cheese comes in a box, with pasta shaped in a small, halfhearted attempt at elbow macaroni, and a dusty orange powder that struggles to pass for something even remotely close to cheese. This, to me, is a pitiful effort toward an otherwise near-perfect comfort food. In my book, mac & cheese means large bites of al dente pasta filled with gooey, oozy cheese sauce, topped with a crunchy breadcrumb topping, hot and bubbling right out of the oven. What’s that, Kraft? “The Cheesiest”, you say? Puh-leeze, I beg to differ.
The first decision in mac & cheese preparation is the pasta shape. As a general rule, I look for larger, curvier varieties; the shapelier the pasta, the more sauce delivered to your face. Think classic elbows, twisted gemelli or fancy shells – anything with plenty of nooks and crannies. I chose the bellflower-shaped campanelle, which have a tube end and frilly edges, perfect for capturing sauce.
The star of this dish, of course, is the cheese. This is where you’re given the liberty of choosing what you like most, what you think tastes best, or what theme you’re adhering to. Maybe you’re a traditionalist who sticks to jack and cheddar. Maybe you’re a Francophile who chooses comté and brie. Maybe you’re hosting a Dutch-themed party where everyone is wearing clumsy wooden clogs and those ridiculous pointed white hats, and you chose edam and gouda. Whatever your combination, don’t be afraid to mix, mingle and experiment with your flavors. It’s hard to go wrong! For my combination, I chose sharp Irish white cheddar, creamy smoked gouda and mild, tangy fontina.
Although the cheese is the shining star, it needs a little help in achieving the right consistency. For that, a béchamel base is used. Now, don’t be afraid; béchamel is big in syllables, but little in effort. The ingredients are elementary: butter, flour and milk. Simply melt a few pats butter in a saucepan, and add flour to create a roux. Once the roux cooks, whisk in milk, allow it to thicken, and voila, béchamel is born.
An essential element to mac & cheese that is lacking in most every store-bought version is the crunchy top. The crunchy top not only adds more texture, but it creates a toasty, nutty element that takes the flavor over the top. I chose a mixture of equal parts bread crumbs and grated parmesan cheese, and sprinkled it on just before it went into the oven. Panko breadcrumbs are especially crispy and crunchy, but if you can’t find them, regular breadcrumbs will certainly do.
Only five minutes in the oven to brown the crunchy top, and you’re ready for a mac & cheese meal that puts any Kraft or Velveeta box to shame. This is the bare bones recipe, and is perfectly delicious on its own. But for those who are feeling adventurous, feel free to play with adding ingredients – herbs, mushrooms, garlic, sausage… heck, even lobster! – to suit your taste.
Now, what French woman in her right mind would say “non, merci” to this?! I don’t know about you, but I’m having seconds. Enjoy!
Mac & Cheese
3 c. favorite pasta
4 Tbs. butter
1/4 c. flour
3 c. milk
4 c. shredded cheese
1/2 c. parmesan cheese, finely grated
1/2 c. panko breadcrumbs
salt & pepper to taste
Preheat broiler to low. In a large stockpot, bring pasta water to a boil and cook the pasta until al dente; drain well and set aside. While the pasta cooks, combine the panko and parmesan in a small mixing bowl, tossing to combine. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour until a thin paste forms, and cook for about 30 seconds. Slowly add in the milk, whisking constantly until smooth. Bring the sauce to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking frequently, until thickened. Turn off the heat and add the shredded cheeses, stirring to combine. Season with salt and pepper.
Add the drained pasta to the cheese sauce and stir it to coat. Transfer the pasta to a medium sized baking dish and sprinkle the panko parmesan mixture over the top. Broil the dish under low heat for about 5-7 minutes, until the top has browned (keep an eye on it!). Let sit for five minutes, then serve immediately.
If the above slideshow doesn’t load, please visit the entire Mac & Cheese set at Flickr.
Laura Hobbs is a guest contributor for the Fayetteville Flyer. She was born and raised in Fayetteville. She is a self-proclaimed foodie and avid cook. For more of Laura’s contributions, visit her author page.