In spite of the recent wave of gentle temperatures, the ever-falling leaves remind us that fall is indeed here.
I love this time of year, but like any season it brings its own unique challenges. Amid the constant struggle to keep our lawns leaf-free (we have given up for now), and the subtle awareness that winter is coming, we may find ourselves seeking just a little comfort these days.
We happen to seek that comfort in the form of food, and my sister-in-law’s macaroni and cheese is about as comforting as it gets.
Few dishes say “childhood” better than mac ’n’ cheese, but I was never on the Kraft bandwagon as a kid. There was just something about its unnatural orange color not found in any other food (including oranges!) that just made me wary. Even now, when I make it for our son, Giovanni, I still get a little creeped out by it.
Needless to say, the idea that mac ’n’ cheese was really a comfort food didn’t come easy until my sister-in-law (and dear friend), Sarah Anstett, convinced me to try her version.
Sarah is an excellent and fearless cook, with a wide range of recipes in her repertoire. She cooks creatively, using recipes as a guideline, and often tweaking them to suit her personal taste.
In the 10 years that she has been married to my brother, Joe, she has cooked for our family often, and I have never been sorry. But when she served her mac ’n’ cheese several years ago for dinner, I almost let my childhood aversion to this Americana standby get the better of me. Fortunately, I knew from experience that Sarah’s version would be worth a taste, and one bite was all it took to convert me.
Sarah uses sharp white cheddar, Gruyere and Parmesan cheeses in her recipe. We recommend using a block of cheese versus a pre-grated bagged version, as cheese holds its flavor better in this form. Grating the cheese is essential, as this step will ensure even cooking and texture in the dish. Cheese is easier to grate by hand when it’s cold, but I’ve fallen in love with the handy (and oft-unused) grating attachment that was included with my food processor, so dust it off and give it a try.
A classic béchamel sauce is the base, which may sound somewhat intimidating. Béchamel is one of the mother sauces in both French and Italian cuisine, and consists simply of butter, flour and milk. In addition to the cheese, Sarah adds prepared yellow mustard, nutmeg and chicken stock for added flavor.
This recipe calls for classic elbow macaroni, but any tubular noodle will work. To ensure the pasta has good texture, Sarah recommends a shorter cooking time than usual when boiling the pasta, as it will continue to cook in the oven.
Before baking, Sarah tops off the cheesy pasta casserole with a mixture of panko breadcrumbs, more cheese and melted butter, and Tony added 2 tablespoons of fresh parsley for color. She broils the dish for about 2 to 4 minutes until it is hot and bubbly, and the breadcrumbs brown and toasty, and then lets it rest for 10 minutes before serving. Now doesn’t that sound comforting?
Sarah Anstett’s Macaroni ’n’ Cheese
1 pound macaroni
¼ cup unsalted butter
½ cup all-purpose flour
4 cups milk
1 tablespoon prepared yellow mustard (like French’s)
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Kosher salt to taste
Pepper to taste
½ pound shredded white sharp cheddar, grated
½ pound Gruyere cheese, grated
¾ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 14.5 ounce can chicken stock
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup panko (Japanese course bread crumbs), or other bread crumbs
1 cup grated cheese mixture
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped (optional)
Mix the three cheeses together and set aside until ready to use, reserving one cup for the topping.
Position a rack about 6-8 inches from the broiler, and preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt generously and add pasta. Cook until tender but still slightly more firm than al dente (about five minutes). Drain pasta; don’t rinse.
Meanwhile, melt ¼ cup butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Scatter flour over the butter and mix with a wooden spoon into a paste. Continue stirring in a “figure 8” until paste puffs slightly and lightens in color, about a minute. Remove from burner and gradually whisk milk into the paste.
Return pan to burner on medium heat and whisk until thickened, then simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce has the consistency of heavy cream, about eight to 10 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Whisk in mustard.
On the lowest heat setting, whisk 3 cups of the cheese into the sauce alternating with chicken stock until incorporated.
In a large bowl, toss the hot pasta with the cheese sauce until evenly coated. Transfer to a Dutch oven or 9-by-12-inch baking dish. In a medium bowl, mix breadcrumbs, melted butter and remaining cup of cheese together and scatter over macaroni.
Place under the broiler and cook until hot and bubbly and the bread crumbs are brown and toasty, 2-4 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes and serve.
- For added comfort and flavor, cook six pieces of bacon, chop them into small pieces and mix in with the sauce and pasta.
- Thinly sliced Roma tomatoes can be added to the top for additional flavor and presentation.