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Upgraded macaroni and cheese
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Upgraded macaroni and cheese

For many people, macaroni and cheese is comfort food, a dish that evokes happy memories of childhood. But not for me! We rarely had it at home, and early exposures to the version served in school cafeterias were anything but comforting: Made with Velveeta, the stuff was gloppy and bland, with scorched edges that reminded me of burnt rubber.

But adults outgrow childhood aversions, and with a few years' perspective, it didn't take me long to realize that I like pasta and I like cheese ... so what's not to like about putting them together?

Today, then, let's consider another autumnal dish, a hearty yet meatless bowl of comfort for blustery days. Call it an upgrade, or call it mac'n'cheese with a college education, this is a favorite recipe that I have evolved over the years, with flavor interest added by a mixture of good cheeses, quality pasta and discreet hints of spice.

It should take less than an hour to make this dish, with the last 30 minutes devoted to unsupervised baking time.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

6 to 8 ounces cheese (see suggestions under PROCEDURE)
3/4 cup milk
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
Cayenne, dried red-pepper flakes or hot sauce
4 ounces elbow macaroni or short pasta
1 tablespoon butter
Garlic clove


1. First preheat your oven to 350F (175C); put a large pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta; lightly grease a casserole or baking dish large enough to hold the macaroni and rub its inner surface with smashed garlic cloves; and measure out your cheese.

2. Let your imagination go as you choose a cheese or variety of cheeses that suits your taste. I use Cheddar or similar sharp yellow cheese as a starting point and usually have it as about three-fourths of the blend. Swiss-type cheeses such as Gruyere or Emmenthaler add a pleasant high note, and a bit of blue cheese (I included 1 ounce of Stilton in a recent mix) contributes earthiness and complexity. Grate the cheeses together using the large-hole side of a four-sided grater or equivalent.

3. Break the egg into a bowl, whip with a fork until the white and yolk are mixed, then stir in 1/2 cup of the milk, taking care to reserve about 1/4 cup for later. Add the dry mustard (it's easiest if you dissolve it in a little water first), and stir in salt, freshly grated pepper and nutmeg and cayenne or hot sauce to taste.

4. Using elbow macaroni for tradition or your choice of short pasta such as penne or conchiglie (small shells), put the pasta in the boiling salted water and cook until it's nearly al dente but still firm, remembering that it will cook more in the dish: The soggy, mushy overcooked macaroni of school days is not what we want here. Elbow macaroni should be done in 6 minutes or so. Short pastas may take a bit longer - go by experience or check instructions on the package.

5. Drain the pasta and put it back into the same pot along with the butter. Toss until the butter melts and coats the pasta. Over medium-low heat, stir in the milk, egg and spice mixture. Then add two-thirds of the cheese. (NOTE: Be sure to save about one-third for later.) Stir until the cheese has melted and the contents of the pot are bubbly. then add the remaining milk and about half of the remaining cheese, stirring until this cheese melts.

6. Turn the contents into the greased and garlicky casserole, and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. Bake uncovered for 30 minutes, or until it's bubbling throughout and crusty-brown on top. It's OK to like the browned bits now ... we're adults, after all!

WINE MATCH: Nothing in this dish should war with any wine, red or white, but my favorite match is a light, fruity red. Beaujolais, Argentinian Malbec, New World Merlot in the lighter style, and less "serious" Italian reds will all work well. We enjoyed it recently with an inexpensive, fruity item from the "boot heel" of Southern Italy, Cortenova 2000 Puglia Sangiovese.

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Thursday, Oct. 24, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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