Way better than Kraft's Macaroni & Cheese

Nicely toasted Mac&Cheese
When I was growing up, we rarely ate food that came out of the box.  Typically if there was part of our food that came out of a box or can, it wouldn't have comprised the whole meal - instead it would have been spaghetti noodles, to be boiled and added to a sauce made from canned tomatoes, to which onions and probably a ready-made spagetti sauce flavoring mix would be added.  Not that our meals were fancy: one of the highlights of Sunday mornings was scrambled eggs with Spam - yep - that infamous not really ham but what do you call it in the distinctly blue tin, and Sunday afternoons was cream of tomato soup (of which I was not a fan as a kid) and open-faced grilled cheese sandwiches, made on my sister Melissa's homemade bread - baked in Folger's coffee cans so the bread slices where round, topped with Tillamook cheddar and a slice of summer sausage (also round, incidentally) and grilled face-up in our oven.

One serving: gone.
Now this, so far is reasonable.  But the one thing I do remember coming out of a box was something we had rarely, but for some reason, my younger brothers and I loved:  Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.  Those of you who know what it is are probably either recoiling in disgust at the thought of such nasty fare, or chuckling a little because you, too, loved it as a kid.  For those who don't know what it is, let me explain.  Kraft Macaroni & Cheese comes in a tall, skinny blue box (at least it did when I was kid - the labeling may have changed).  In the box was dried macaroni and a little white package that contained a powdered yellow substance: "the cheese".  The macaroni was boiled according to package instructions:  roughly 10 minutes if I recall.  Then the water was drained off and to the macaroni was added the dubious contents of the white package, a few tablespoons of butter, a little milk, and you stirred until all the yellow powder was evenly distributed, wetted with the aid of the butter and milk and any moisture clinging to the noodles after draining.  The result was a sticky, gooey, pumpkin orange macaroni slop that we were inexplicably thrilled about.

Thankfully, things have improved since then in the Macaroni & Cheese department.  Thanks once again to my favorite cooking magazine, Fine Cooking, we were able to dine on something that was much closer to what you will find at Beecher's Cheese near the Pike Place Market, or from Rita & Skip's corner market (which they very suitable served with meatballs - thanks again!)

Give it a try for yourself!  The recipe requires dirtying a whole pile of pots and pans, but is oh-so-worth the effort.  And so vastly different from the Kraft version, I'm not certain that a comparison is even fair.  And here's the thing:  you can use whatever mixture of cheeses it is that you think will make you happy.  Ditto for the add-ins:  vegetables, meat, mushrooms, spinach, herbs, and spices.  Go a little wild with it, and Enjoy!

Something to smile about!
Macaroni & Cheese
adapted from Fine Cooking, Jan/Feb 2012

Preheat the oven to 350°F/170°C.  Position the rack in the center of the oven.

Prep your ingredients:
1 lb of you choice of pasta (I used penne, but anything that the sauce will cling to works well.)

Heat water to a boil and add pasta.  Cook for one minute less than manufacturer's instructions; drain; set aside.

Add-ins (whatever you want - here what's in mine)
1 leek, white and light green parts only, washed and cut into 1/4" thick rounds
1 cup chopped cabbage
1/4 cup water
1 cup of frozen peas
1 teaspoon of dried thyme

Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat and add 1 Tablespoons of oil.  Add leek and cook until leek softens.  Add cabbage and 1/4 water.  Steam cabbage and leeks together until cabbage is softened.  Remove from heat and stir in frozen peas and thyme.  Set aside.

1 clove of garlic, crushed or smashed into a paste
3 Tablespoons butter, melted
2 cups fresh, course bread crumbs, lightly toasted (if you have a food processor, toast the bread first and put the slices into the food processor to make crumbs)

Melt the butter and stir in the garlic.  Pour the garlic butter over the bread crumbs and toss to combine thoroughly.  Set aside.  

Cheese Sauce
1/4 cup butter
2 Tablespoons of flour
3 1/2 cups of milk (I used 2%)
3 cups of mixed cheeses, grated (I used 2 cups Gruyere and 1 cup Fontina)
2 Tablespoons fresh, chopped parsley

In a heavy pot over medium heat, warm butter until completely melted.  Add flour and stir with a whisk until flour and butter are fully incorporated.  Add 1/3 of the milk, and whisk vigorously until the mixture is smooth, lump-free and begins to thicken.  Add the remaining milk, raise the temperature to medium high, and whisk constantly until the mixture begins to bubble.  Turn the heat down to low so the mixture bubbles quietly, and, stirring occasionally, let bubble for 5 minutes.  Add the grated cheeses and the parsley and whisk until the cheese is fully incorporated and melted into the sauce.

Add the noodles to the vegetables in the frying pan and toss to combine.  Pour the cheese sauce over the noodle & vegetable mixture until everything is well-coated with cheese sauce.  Pour the entire pasta mixture into a 9x13" baking dish (or whatever you have that fits this quantity of ingredients).  Sprinkle the bread crumb mixture evenly over the top.  Place mixture into the heated oven and bake until the bread crumbs are nicely browned and the mixture begins to bubble; about 15 minutes.  

Cool 5 minutes.  Serves 6 generously.

There's just so much good stuff in here. Perfect winter food.

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