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Verses from my Kitchen: Mac and Cheese

October 27, 2010

Mac and Cheese

Soul food. Heaven in a bowl. Southern classic. These are just some of the ways I describe my favourite childhood food that has grown up over the years. This isn't your grandma's macaroni and cheese we're talking about. It doesn't come out of a stiff cardboard box with faux-powdered cheese in a package. In Canada, Kraft Dinner is a household name, and for many, many years it fed my journey through adolescence and into my college days. Those days are gone.

I have grown up since then and so has my palette, but I still seek out comfort food for those colder days and longer nights. I need something that will feed my soul and appease my taste buds. What I really need is a new spin on an old staple and a recipe to pull on the cozy nostalgia of my younger days. Mac and Cheese fits all that criteria. The one thing I love about this dish is how simple and comforting it is. It's my lunchbox revival on an iconic classic.

These days making Mac and Cheese is like an after-school project. Each time I make it I'm trying to do it with more flavour, more comfort and more cheese. It's rich, smooth and velvety, and I can spend hours experimenting. I try different types of cheese, the addition of bacon or pancetta, onion or lobster and play with creating a crunchy golden-brown crumb and cheese topping. It's a perfectly reasonable way to spend an afternoon.

I've tried several variations over the years but I've finally come to the version I love best. To me it's about the cheese sauce first and foremost and it starts with butter, flour and milk, thyme and grated sharp cheddar added in. It's also very important to make it in stages. Butter melted in a pan and flour added in to make a paste. Milk and garlic and thyme heated up and left to infuse, eventually strained and added to the roux and cooked until thickened. Adding the cheese and making a sauce so rich and delicious that you'll want to sip it. Believe me.

This is the way I like to make it. It's the perfect medicine for whatever your ailment happens to be that day.

Golden delicious Mac n' Cheese

Mac and Cheese

Yields: 4

The Goods:
Kosher salt
3 tbsp. butter
3 tbsp. flour
1 tbsp. mustard powder
1 tsp. cayenne
2 cups milk, heated
1 sprig fresh thyme
2 garlic cloves
1/2 lb. elbow macaroni
1 1/2 cups grated sharp Cheddar (optional-1 cup white Cheddar and 1/2 cup Monterey Jack)
2 white bread slices, large breadcrumbs
1/2 cup grated Cheddar

The Prep:
1. Preheat oven to 375. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat and cook pasta until al dente. Drain and reserve for later.
2. In a heavy pot, heat the milk with the thyme and garlic. In a separate saucepan, melt the butter and whisk in the flour and cook for a minute, stirring often, to prevent lumps from forming.
3. Strain out the solids from the milk and whisk milk into the flour mixture. Whisk often and cook until the mixture is smooth and lump-free and coats the back of a wooden spoon, about 6 minutes. Stir in mustard and cayenne and 1 1/2 cups of cheddar and continue to cook and stir until cheese is melted. Season with kosher salt.
4. Toss in the pasta and fold until completely coated with cheese. Transfer to a baking dish and set aside.
5. In a food processor, pulse bread until large crumbs are formed. Toss with the 1/2 cup of cheese and top pasta with the breadcrumb mixture. Baked until top is golden-brown, about 30 minutes.
6. Remove from oven and serve.

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