Monday, February 7, 2011

Favourite Things

For someone who spent the first six years of her life with basically zero dairy consumption, I sure love cheese. It's pretty funny that the first time I tried pizza ("real" pizza, not roma pizza) I thought it was absolutely disgusting. Oh, how times have changed!

Anyway, high on my "favourite foods" list is macaroni and cheese. I'm pretty obsessed and probably eat some form of it at least once a week. And I'm no snob - Kraft dinner is included in this category. At any given time we always have at least one "emergency" box in the cupboard, but usually (like now) it's more like three. Of course, I do usually end up doctoring up the KD at the very least with some extra sharp cheddar but I appreciate the convenience of the box.

Some days though, only the real thing will do. Gooey, rich and cheesy with the crunchy baked topping? You can't beat it. I came across this skillet mac and cheese recipe about a year ago and have been using it in variations ever since. I love the fact that it's basically a one-pot (or skillet) dish and goes straight from the stove to the oven (seriously this is 99% of the reason I love both my cast iron skillet and dutch ovens. It's genius, really). I have had to toy with the measures a bit, as I found the original recipe a bit drier than my liking and I rarely have cream in the apartment. But I think I've finally got the recipe just the way I like it - creamy and saucy but not soupy and full of cheesy goodness. Yum.

I added spinach and cherry tomatoes this time in an attempt to "lighten" the dish up aaand maybe because I ate next to no fruits or veggies this weekend (who wants scurvy? Not me!) Anyway, turns out it was a good call as it was DELICIOUS. I may go as far as saying this was my favourite mac and cheese. The pasta to cheese sauce ratio was just right, and the added ingredients helped to keep the dish from feeling too heavy and rich. Not to mention the fact that it just looked nicer with the added colour in the dish.

The best part about this recipe is that it's so versatile - you can add herbs, meat or whatever vegetables and any other additions that you like or just go for the straight-up macaroni and cheese. It's delicious either way and great for leftovers or freezing afterwards.

Note: So I just realized this picture doesn't really look anything like a macaroni and cheese. But I swear it is! And it's delicious! Try it!

Skillet Mac and Cheese

adapted from Serious Eats

1/2 - 3/4 lb dry short pasta* (I used penne but usually go with the traditional elbow macaroni or sometimes bow ties)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp mustard (whole grain or something good if you have it, but plain old yellow works too!)
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour (I actually used whole wheat because I'm out of AP, sometimes I used bread flour. Meh, it's just thickener. You can't tell the difference)
2 cups milk (the recipe says whole, but who actually keeps that around the house? I just use 1 or 2% depending on what I have)
2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus 1/4 cup for topping
1/2 cup coarse fresh breadcrumbs
1 bunch spinach
1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
A hunk of Boursin (optional!)
Fresh ground pepper

*The amount of pasta you should use depends on whether or not you're adding extra ingredients. If you're a purist and making straight up mac and cheese, you can use more pasta. I tend to almost always add something or the other so half a pound is usually sufficient.

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Farenheit, or 190 degrees Celsius

2. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until somewhat al dente (i.e. should be soft on the outside but have a tiny bit of bite still to it) but not fully cooked. Basically you want it slightly less cooked than you would like to eat your pasta, as it will continue to cook in the oven. Drain it and rinse with cool water.

3. While the pasta is cooking, melt 1/4 cup of the butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet (OR a dutch oven OR any sort of oven-safe skillet/pot that seems the right size) over medium heat until the foam subsides and add the flour, whisking to remove clumps and prevent burning. Slowly add the milk in small amounts, whisking as you go to get all the clumps. Whisk in the mustard and 1/2 tsp salt.

4. Set aside about a 1/2 cup between the Parmesan and Cheddar cheeses. Add the remaining cheeses a little at a time while stirring the whole time until they are melted into the sauce. Taste for salt and season with pepper as needed.

5. Turn off the heat, add the pasta and stir to coat. Add in the spinach and tomatoes and whatever else you're adding to the dish, and stir until it's all nicely coated in the sauce. Combine the breadcrumbs, the rest of the cheese and some salt and pepper, and sprinkle over the top.

6. Bake until the top is nicely browned and the sauce is bubbling, about 20 to 25 minutes. Let sit 5 minutes before serving.

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