One year ago, in my very first post for this blog, I mentioned that I would share with you my favorite comfort food: my Gram’s mac and cheese. After talking to her this weekend over the phone, I discovered that my Gram is not really the one I should be thanking when it comes to the mac and cheese I’ve eaten at her house on so many occasions. Turns out my Gram had a little help from our good old friend, Betty Crocker. Most people are familiar with Crocker’s creations so I won’t be giving anyone a history lesson but it’s her recipe that I used as an inspiration/guide when I made my own version of mac and cheese this weekend.
Those that are familiar with home-made macaroni and cheese know the basic staples of any good mac and cheese recipe: milk, butter, flour, macaroni pasta, and cheese. There are so many versions of macaroni and cheese out there, you can really accommodate just about anyone’s preferences. The list of cheeses to choose from is pretty extensive and you can add bacon or squash or pretty much anything that tastes good with cheese!
I decided to alter Betty’s recipe just a smidge. Betty’s recipe is as follows:
3 tbsp flour
3 tbsp butter
2 cups milk
3 cups of sharp cheddar cheese
1 1/2 cups macaroni pasta
1/4 cup minced onion
1/2 tsp salt
dash of pepper
Pretty basic right? If you’ve made mac and cheese from scratch then you can figure out how the recipe is made from the ingredients I listed. My version of mac and cheese is a little bit different. I sliced one whole onion and sauteed it on medium heat with olive oil in the same pot I had used to cook the pasta in (I also use an entire box of pasta). After a few minutes, I sprinkled 2 tsp of sugar over the onion and seasoned the onion with salt and pepper as well. Gave it a good stir, and covered the pot and let the heat and the sugar begin to help the onions caramelize (2-3 mins). Now I wasn’t really measuring anything at this point, but I poured a little red wine and balsamic vinegar into the pot as well. Enough to cover the bottom of the pot, but not so much where the onions are drowning. Sprinkle some dried basil, thyme and rosemary into the pot as well. You just want to give the onions a little flavor to soak up. Keep stirring and make sure that the vinegar/wine smell has basically disappeared before you cover the pot for 3-5 minutes. Check the onions before you transfer them to the cutting board. They need to be mostly soft but still have a bite to them because they will continue to cook in the oven with the mac and cheese. If they aren’t ready, give them a good stir and put the cover back on the pot for another 3-5 minutes or until you are satisfied.
If the onions are ready, transfer them over to a cutting board and give them a nice dice. I transferred them to the bechamel sauce that I had already been making on the stove. Season the bechamel/onion sauce with cayenne pepper (again, I didn’t really measure how much I used, but season it to your preference). This is a spicy mac and cheese. Not overwhelmingly spicy by any means but enough to notice it’s there that way other people can still add more spice if they want to. Add the cheese to the bechamel/onion sauce. I decided to add 2 cups of cheddar and jack cheese mix (about 1 cup of each). These two cheeses melt really well together.
I also chose to use penne pasta instead of the traditional macaroni pasta. I love penne and the truth is, as long as the pasta is a tubular pasta, it will be perfect for any mac and cheese because come on, let’s face it… You want the cheese sauce to get inside the noodle too. The pasta needs to be al dente because it’s going to continue cooking in the oven. Transfer the pasta (that you should have already cooked) to the cheese sauce and combine until the pasta is coated in the cheese sauce. Transfer that to a greased 9 x 13 in pyrex baking dish. You can grease it with butter, I chose to use an olive oil spray. You’re going to need at least a cup of sharp cheddar cheese (or more if you like your mac and cheese really cheesy). Sprinkle the bottom of the dish with cheese (that’s my gram’s trick) then eye-ing the pasta/cheese sauce mixture, add half of the cheese and pasta to the pyrex dish, sprinkle with more cheese (and if you want to add more cayenne pepper now would be a good time to do that too). I also like to sprinkle grated parmesan cheese on my mac and cheese as well, so I added some grated parmesan when I added the cayenne pepper and shredded cheddar. Spread the remaining pasta/cheese combo on top and sprinkle with more cheese (and again, if necessary, more cayenne pepper).
The mac and cheese goes in the oven at 350 degrees for about 40 mins. You want the cheese that was sprinkled on top to be brown. It’s cheesy and the onions have a really sweet but still savory flavor to them that adds a little more depth to the mac and cheese. The cayenne adds a nice kick as well. You could always decide to not use any extra pepper when seasoning your mac and cheese too and it will still be delicious. This is not your grandmother’s mac and cheese (or mine for that matter). Hopefully Betty would be proud (and yes, I know Betty isn’t a real person).