The Girl is having a friend sleep over this evening. When she asked if Kara could stay the night, I scratched my plans for an easy no-cook dinner (because, let’s face it, no kid wants to eat a big spinach salad with somebody else’s favorite dressing when she’s staying away from home) and started thinking about comfort food—something plentiful enough to feed five of us and, ideally, still leave some leftovers for tomorrow. Most of my comfort food favorites are a little heavy for a summer dinner, but not my perennial standby: homemade mac and cheese.
The best mac and cheese I’ve ever eaten was prepared for me by chef Michelle Michalenko during my first writing residency at the Ragdale Foundation near Chicago. I was missing my kids badly for those two weeks, and I still remember sitting at the big dining room table at the Ragdale house, feeling a little less lonely while I shoveled that fabulous mac and cheese into my mouth. (I’m pretty sure I hogged all the leftovers,too.) The secret to this great mac and cheese, Michelle told me later, was sharp white cheddar cheese in the sauce and panko breadcrumbs on top.
At that point in my own cooking career, I was still learning some of the basics of making a cheese sauce. Through trial and error I learned, for example, the importance of taking the sauce base (which is actually a sauce in its own right, Bechamel Sauce—that’s right, I’m going to teach you to make fancy-pants Bechamel Sauce, one of the mother sauces of French cooking) off the heat before stirring in the cheese—skip that step and you’ll end up with a “gritty” cheese sauce, because the cheese will break into its curd and whey components. I also learned that using evaporated 2% milk to make the Bechamel virtually guaranteed a thick, creamy sauce without the high fat content of whole milk. Given that reduced fat cheese doesn’t melt smoothly, giving up some of the fat elsewhere isn’t a bad idea. And then, at some point, I read or heard that using a tiny bit of processed cheese would help make the sauce more elastic. When you’re making a dish like this, you want a sauce that conforms to the shape of the pasta, not one that runs off and winds up on the serving plate. That’s where the processed cheese comes in handy.
I almost always use Barilla Plus pasta these days. It’s a multi-grain pasta with lots of protein and fiber, and at this point my kids prefer it to the white stuff. Rotini is a good choice for mac and cheese because the sauce gets caught in its lovely contours, but there’s no reason you can’t use farfalle, penne, or plain old elbow macaroni. I recommend using panko bread crumbs on top—they’re nice and crunchy, a good contrast to the creamy pasta—but any type of breadcrumbs will suffice, if you don’t have panko on hand. In fact, if you’re in a hurry, you can skip the breadcrumb topping altogether and serve this mac and cheese right off the stovetop.
We had our mac and cheese with some steamed green beans from the farmer’s market this evening. Kara said, “This is better than the homemade mac and cheese I had at camp, at that was the best mac and cheese I’d ever eaten.” The beans, she decided, were very tasty, but the ones picked fresh from her father’s garden were better. I conceded this was no doubt true. Then she shared with us some luscious lemon cookies she’d brought along for dessert. They were tart and chewy and, of course, I asked her for the recipe. Stay tuned, because you’re sure to see it here eventually.
Homemade Mac and Cheese
1 lb. uncooked rotini pasta
3 T. butter
3 T. flour
1 can evaporated 2% milk
½ cup milk (1%, 2%, or whatever you have on hand)
½ tsp. nutmeg
½ tsp. garlic salt
2 slices American cheese
2 cups shredded cheese (any type or combination of types—I like sharp white cheddar)
½ cup panko bread crumbs
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Fresh black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with non-stick spray and set it aside.
Bring a pot of water to a boil and add the rotini. While it's boiling, melt the butter in a large saucepan; whisk in the butter until you have a thick paste (officially called a roux.) Let this cook for just a minute or two, until it's bubbly but not browning. Slowly stir in the can of evaporated milk, a little at a time, whisking to make the sauce smooth between additions. Then add the regular milk, using the same procedure. Finally, stir in the nutmeg and garlic salt.
Now, take the saucepan off the heat. Don't just turn off the heat; move the saucepan to a cold burner, or off the stove entirely. Tear the American cheese slices into small pieces and drop them into the hot Bechamel. Stir until the pieces of cheese are melted. Then add the grated cheese, a little at time, stirring between additions. Toward the end you may discover that the shredded cheese isn't melting completely, but that's okay. It will finish melting when you stir it into the hot pasta. Leave the sauce off the heat while you drain the rotini.
After the pasta has been drained, return it to the same pot you used for cooking it (be careful, because the pot will still be hot.) Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta and stir until it's completely coated. Then, turn the coated pasta into the prepared 9 x 13 inch baking pan. Sprinkle the bread crumbs on top, then the Parmesan cheese.
Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until the topping starts to brown.