I HATED mac-n-cheese growing up because my Mom made that orange crap that comes out of a box. We would have it with boiled hot dogs on nights my Dad had to work the night shift. I called it our welfare meal.
My feelings about cheesy pasta changed when I moved to New York City in 2003. My first apartment was on the cusp of Hell’s Kitchen, close to The Eatery. The Eatery is a comfort food place with a totally kick a#$ mac and jack with frizzled onions. Full of tangy flavor and creamy goodness. YUM!!!
Shortly after enjoying that amazing dish at The Eatery I tried to recreate it in my own kitchen. I attempted to fancify it by tossing in peas and bacon and topping it with potato chips. Dear readers, did I ever tell you that I have a penchant for gilding the lily?
Anyhoo, it was too much of EVERYTHING and not the right ratio of cheese to pasta. I like my mac and cheese tangy with a velvety mouth feel and a bit on the saucy side. After much trial and err, I found a recipe that is exactly right for me. I hope you enjoy it.
This serves 4 to 6.
- 1/3 cup of unsalted butter with a tad more for the top
- ½ of a yellow onion sliced very thinly
- 1/3 cup of flour
- 2 cups of milk ( I use whole milk)
- Approx. 2 cups of a melty cheese with a bite shredded (I use Gruyere or Cotswold)
- ¼ cup of parmigano reggiano, asiago, or romano finely grated with more for sprinkling on top
- 3 oz of cream cheese or mascarpone (this is part one of the secret to creamy mac)
- ¼ cup of plain lowfat greek yogurt (this is parte dos)
- 1 heaping tablespoon whole grain mustard
- Scant 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper (Go light on this. Mac-n-cheese shouldn’t bite you back)
- ½ teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg (use your microplane- it’s the perfect tool for the job)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- ¾ to the whole box of cavatappi pasta (or penne rigate or good ol’ fashioned elbow)
- Panko bread crumbs (regular bread crumbs are fine in a pinch)
First things first. Boil the pasta until just this side of al dente in a pot of salted water. Drain and set aside. I’d go about 2 to 3 minutes shy of the time recommended on the packaging.
Once the pasta has started, melt the butter in a largish sauté pan over medium heat. Once the butter has liquefied, add the sliced onions. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon. When the onions are translucent, toss in the flour and begin to stir. What you are doing is cooking the flour taste out of this thickening mixture, which is called a roux. You’ll need to stir the roux consistently for about 5 minutes. If it gets brown flush it down (well, throw it out and start over).
Pour the milk into the roux and whisk continually. Before your eyes it will start to thicken (it’s the flour, baby!). Once it’s a sauce consistency, pull it off of the heat and add the cheeses. You’ll need to stir in the cheeses until they melt (I like to do this with a wooden spoon). Next toss in your flavorings: whole grain mustard, cayenne pepper and nutmeg. Toss in the cooked pasta. Stir to incorporate. TASTE it. And, then add salt and pepper accordingly.
Pour the warm gooey pasta into an 8 x 8 pan. Sometimes I scoop some out and put in one cup ramekins for individuals servings. Regardless of the vessel, I top with bread crumbs and dot with butter. The lot goes into a 350 oven uncovered and cooks until the top is golden brown and bubbly. It generally takes around 20 minutes (sometimes longer…keep an eye on it).
Trust me. It’s awesome.