Oven Baked Macaroni and Cheese

On those cold days in the middle of winter I find myself craving the scrumptious comfort foods that I grew up with. Macaroni and cheese is on the top of the list of go-to comfort food favorites. I remember requesting that my mother make macaroni and cheese on a weekly basis when I was a child. And I was a child not satisfied with the standard blue box mac and cheese!

Since my childhood, I’ve enjoyed creating several different varieties of macaroni and cheese. The great thing about this recipe is that you can swap out the flavors you want. Sharp cheddar one time, and fontina mixed with asiago the next. You are only limited by your imagination (and perhaps the variety at your grocery store).

This recipe will show you the standard method I use to make macaroni and cheese. Please feel free to use this method and alter it to your tastes.

Hereis our cast of characters (plus half of a small yellow onion):

First, get a pot of water readyto boilthe pasta and preheat your broiler. While waiting for the water to boil, cut the block of cheese into a few manageable pieces and grate using a box grater or the grater blade on a food processor.

*A quick note on the cheese: While it may be tempting to buy a big bag of pre-shredded cheese at the store to save on time, I STRONGLY urge you not to do so. Pre-shredded cheese has a coating on it, that when added to the cream sauce, causes it to separate and gain a grainy texture. Not appetizing at all! So, take the extra time and grate the cheese yourself, it will be worth it in the end.

Once the cheese is grated, set it aside and start on the cream sauce. At this point, your water should be ready to add the pasta.

While the pasta cooks, prepare the cheese sauce. Cut up half of a small onion in a small dice, add it to two tablespoons of butter in a two quart saucepan and cook over medium-high heat.

Once the onions are translucent, add in two tablespoons of flour.

Whisk the flour and make sure that all of it is mixed in to the butter and onions.

Let the flour mixture (also known as a roux) cook for a minute or two to ensure that the cream sauce doesn’t have a raw flour taste. You want the roux to be a very pale beige color (blonde), not a dark color. The longer a roux cooks, the less thickening power it has and we want a thick creamy cheese sauce.

At this point, start to slowly add the milk to the roux. Make sure to constantly whisk the mixture to eliminate any possible lumps.

Once some of the milk is incorporated into the roux, add more milk slowly.

Once all the milk is added, lower the heat to medium and add salt, pepper and, the secret ingredient, nutmeg. A good rule of thumb to follow in the kitchen is that any cream sauce you ever make needs a little sprinkle of nutmeg. Not enough for the diner to know it’s in there, just enough for them to say hmm, what’s in this?”

Let the cream sauce cook over medium heat, stirring often. When the milk starts to bubble, turn the heat down to medium-low and allow to thicken.

While the cream sauce is thickening and the pasta is finishing up cooking, melt three tablespoons of butter in a small bowl.

Add in 3/4 of a cup of seasoned panko bread crumbs. You can use regular breadcrumbs if that’s what you have on hand, but the panko are just so crispy,light and good!<a href=" title="Macaroni and cheese17" />

Mix the breadcrumbs until they are evenly coated with the melted butter. Set aside.

Once the cream sauce is thickened (it will coat the back of a spoon), add a tablespoon of yellow mustard.

Start incorporating the grated cheese. Reserve 1/4 of the cheese to sprinkle on top of the macaroni and cheese.

At this point, you can turn the heat off under the sauce because the heat from the cream sauce itself will melt the rest of the cheese. Mix until all the cheese is melted and blended into the sauce.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it and pour it back into the pot it was cooked in.

Add the cheese sauce to the cooked pasta.

Now is when you can get creative with add-ins. The macaroni is great as-is with just the cheese sauce, but why stop there? On this occasion, I felt like addingsome protein so I diced up some chicken andouille sausage and heated it up in a saute pan.

Feel free to add whatever you like. Some ground beef with tomatoeswould make a great cheeseburger mac and cheese. Broccoli and chicken are also great.

Mix together the pasta, cheese sauce, and any other additions you’ve made, making sure you get all the noodles coated with the sauce.

It is perfectly acceptable to stop at this point and serve up this macaroni and cheese. However, to give it that little something extra, I take an additional step by putting it in the oven.

Place the macaroni and cheese mixture into a greased baking pan. For a whole box of pasta use a 13×9 pan or a two quart or larger casserole dish. Top with the reserved cheese.

Sprinkle on the breadcrumb mixture and pop under the broiler until the cheese is melted and the breadcrumbs are golden brown.

Be sure to watch it because it can go from zero to burned in a matter of seconds. Take it out of the oven when it is golden brown.

Enjoy!

Sous Chef

Additional Notes:

This dish is actually easy to prepare ahead of time. Simply follow all of the steps until you get to the point where you add the cheese and breadcrumbs on top. Instead of putting the hot mixture under the broiler, you can bake the macaroni and cheese in a 375 degree oven for 45 minutes.

Put the pasta mixture in your casserole dish, cover and refrigerate. When you want to have dinner, pull the macaroni and cheese out of the fridge half an hour before going in the oven. Top with cheese and breadcrumbs and bake.

Oven Baked Macaroni and Cheese

1 box short cut pasta, like ziti

1 lb extra sharp cheddar cheese

3/4 cup seasoned panko breadcrumbs

2 cups milk

1/2 small onion, petite dice

5 tbs butter

2 tbs flour

1 tbs yellow mustard

pinch of nutmeg (1 or 2 grates of whole nutmeg)

salt and pepper to taste

chicken andouille sausage, optional

Directions:

Puta pot of water on to boil for the pasta and preheat your broiler. While waiting for the water to boil, grate the cheese and set aside. When the water comes to a boil, add the pasta.

While the pasta cooks, prepare the cheese sauce. Cut up half of a small onion in a small dice, add it to two tablespoons of butter in a two quart saucepan and cook over medium-high heat.

Once the onions are translucent, add in two tablespoons of flour. Whisk the flour and make sure that all of it is mixed into the butter and onions. Cook theflour mixture (roux) cook for a minute or two to ensure that the cream sauce doesn’t have a raw flour taste. Slowly add the milk to the roux. Make sure to constantly whisk the mixture to eliminate any possible lumps.

Once all the milk is added, lower the heat to medium and add salt, pepper and nutmeg. Let the cream sauce cook over medium heat, stirring often. When the milk starts to bubble, turn the heat down to medium-low and allow to thicken.

While the cream sauce is thickening and the pasta is finishing up cooking, melt three tablespoons of butter in a small bowl. Add in 3/4 of a cup of seasoned panko bread crumbs. Mix the breadcrumbs until they are evenly coated with the melted butter. Set aside.

Once the cream sauce is thickened, add a tablespoon of yellow mustard. Start incorporating the grated cheese. Reserve 1/4 of the cheese to sprinkle on top of the macaroni and cheese. Turn the heat off under the sauce. Mix until all the cheese is melted and blended into the sauce.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it and pour it back into the pot it was cooked in. Add the cheese sauce to the cooked pasta. Add in andouille sausage. Mix together the pasta, cheese sauce, and any other additions you’ve made, making sure you get all the noodles coated with the sauce. Place the macaroni and cheese mixture into a greased baking pan. Top with the reserved cheese. Sprinkle on the breadcrumb mixture and pop under the broiler until the cheese is melted and the breadcrumbs are golden brown.

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