Feast or Famine Mac ‘n Cheese

Pioneer Woman Mac 'n CheeseFeast or Famine

April is the month of budding fruit trees, tulips, nasty yellow marshmallow birds and, sigh, taxes.

Some years we look forward to April ‘cause we naively think that Uncle Sam will contribute to our “Butt on a Beach” fund. (By the way, this is a cause I believe in wholeheartedly. Donate now!)

Other years? Not so much.

We’ve all been there. One week we’re cruising down our beautiful “well maintained” highways (that shrine to our tax dollars at work) on our way to a dinner of filet mignon with lobster. And the next week Turbo Tax is telling us that there is a Costco size case of Top Ramen in our future.

So, in honor of Feast or Famine month, I offer you two of my top recipes for a comfort food favorite, Mac & Cheese. True, the desperate can go the blue-box, plastic cheese route. But the real deal is easy to prepare, and you can make extra for the freezer.

For those whose fortunes have been favored, I offer a decadent version, and suggest you enjoy it with your favorite bottle of bubbly—while using your best Thurston Howell III voice. 

Macaroni & Cheese
Adapted from Pioneer Woman

4 Cups dried Elbow macaroni
4 Tablespoons salted butter
4 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 1/2 Cups Whole Milk
2 Heaping Teaspoons Mustard Powder
1 Egg
1 Pound Grated Mixed Cheese: Colby, Monterey Jack, Fontina, Mild Cheddar, Pepper Jack and/or Gruyere
Salt and Pepper to taste.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cook 4 cups dried macaroni in salted water until it’s very “al dente”. It needs to be quite firm when you bring it out of the water.
In a small bowl, whisk the egg. Set aside.

Make the roux. In a large saucepan or dutch oven, melt 1/4 cup butter. Sprinkle in 4 tablespoons of flour, and whisk the mixture together over medium-low heat until totally combined. Continue cooking for around 5 minutes, whisking constantly.

Add in 2 1/2 cups whole milk. Immediately add 2 heaping teaspoons of dry mustard, and whisk the mixture together. Cook for about 5 minutes. It will get extremely thick, almost like a cream gravy.

Reduce the heat to low. Use a 1/4 cup measure to retrieve a small amount of the sauce. Pour the small amount of sauce into the beaten egg slowly, whisking constantly to avoid cooking the eggs. Keep whisking until mixture is cooled. This is called “tempering”.

Add the tempered egg into the pan, and whisk the mixture together until it is totally combined. Incorporate in all but about 1/2 cup of the grated cheese. Stir together until it is completely melted. Turn off the heat.

Add about 1/2 teaspoon salt, and plenty of black pepper. and additional ground spices as desired. *I use paprika, cayenne pepper, even ground thyme every now and then. Play with different ground spices and see what you like best.

Add the cheese mixture to the drained macaroni, and stir.

It can be eaten as is, or poured into a 2-quart, buttered baking dish. (A 9 x 13 pan would work just fine.) Top the dish with the rest of the grated cheese, and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes until the cheese is melted, bubbly, and golden.

The secret to good, baked mac & cheese is this crispy top, which hides a creamy, soft bottom.

Lobster Mac & Cheese
Adapted from Ina Garten
Courtesy of the Food Network

Kosher salt
Vegetable oil
1 pound cavatappi or elbow macaroni
1 quart milk
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
12 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated (4 cups)
8 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar, grated (2 cups)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 1/2 pounds cooked lobster meat
1 1/2 cups fresh white bread crumbs (5 slices, crusts removed)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Drizzle oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add the pasta and cook according to the directions on the package, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain well.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan, but don’t boil it. In a large pot, melt 6 tablespoons of butter and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring with a whisk. Still whisking, add the hot milk and cook for a minute or two more, until the sauce is thickened and smooth. Turn off the heat, add the Gruyere, Cheddar, 1 tablespoon salt, the pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooked macaroni and lobster and stir well. Place the mixture in 6 to 8 individual gratin dishes.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, combine them with the fresh bread crumbs, and sprinkle on the top. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the macaroni is browned on the top.

Photo: The Pioneer Woman

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