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Mac and cheese indulgence, with a bit of spring

April 20, 2007

Cheesy goodness

With the weather as crappy as it was all week, and a refrigerator full of fancy cheese, a mac and cheese night seemed like a necessity. Freezing rain in April makes me want to indulge myself, and stick things in the oven, and enjoy the comfort of a big bowl of cheesy noodles.

To my mind, macaroni and cheese is the ultimate comfort food, which I’m sure is true for many, many people. My mom recalls times when I refused to eat anything else. Of course, in my childhood it was Kraft, or an odd favorite of mine, Golden Grain that was so often clamored for. In college, I tasted Annie’s mac and cheese and was an instant convert. After Annie’s, Kraft just tastes like nothing. When I first moved to Boston, I probably ate macaroni and cheese at least once a week (with tuna, which some people find disgusting, for reasons I can’t fathom). And of course once I started cooking and realized how easy homemade macaroni and cheese really is, well…I can’t even remember the last time I bought a box of Annie’s.

Of course, the homemade macaroni and cheese I made Wednesday night did take over an hour, which is probably the reason the boxed version will never truly disappear from even the most ardent chef’s kitchen. But this week, that hour seemed best spent in a warm kitchen, watching the windows steam up while outside there was nothing but gray and drizzle and bleh.

I had also picked up a bunch of asparagus at Allandale farm over the weekend, which I decided to add to the mix. Mac and cheese makes me feel slightly less guilty when there’s greenery in there. And the asparagus was like a little promise of spring in such a wintry casserole-y dinner. It was an excellent addition. And the wagon wheel pasta? When I saw it at the market, I was instantly reverted to my childhood, and it had to go in. Wagon wheel pasta might not be a traditional mac and cheese noodle, but I gotta tell ya, it was perfect. All its little holes and ridges held onto the cheese sauce, and even the asparagus, quite well. And it looked way more fun in the bowl.

Macaroni and Cheese with Asparagus

  • 3/4 lb. wagon wheel pasta
  • 1 small bunch of asparagus, with the woody ends snapped off
  • 3 T. butter
  • 1/4 c. bread crumbs
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 T. flour
  • a bit less than 2 c. milk
  • 1 1/2 c. grated cheese (I used gruyere and mahon, an excellent combination)
  • salt, pepper, and a little bit of nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Set a big pot of salted water on to boil, and a big bowl of ice water on the side. Blanch the asparagus in the boiling water for a minute, then remove with tongs or something and set in the cold water. Set them aside to cool off, and let the water come to a boil again.

Melt one tablespoon of butter in a small skillet, and add the breadcrumbs. Stir them around a bit and let them toast up for a minute or two, then set them aside.

Add the pasta to the boiling water, and let it cook while you make cheese sauce. I, erm, overcooked my pasta a bit, so you probably want to keep a good eye on it and let it cook until it’s just al dente. Of course, overcooked pasta matters much less when you’re going to bake it in a casserole, and it did seem to somehow firm up a bit in the oven, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

The sauce is very easy. I think people tend to get intimidated by bechamels and cheese sauces in general, but there is nothing to be afraid of. To be honest, I feel momentarily nervous almost everytime I make a bechamel. When I start to add the milk, I always worry that I’m going to add too much, or not enough, and every time it turns out just right, so really, there is nothing to be nervous about.

Wagon Wheels

Melt the remaining two tablespoons of butter in a large skillet. When it starts to bubble, add the garlic and saute for a little less than a minute, or until the garlic smells really awesome and the foaminess of the butter starts to subside. Then add the flour, a bit at a time, whisking until you have a nice flour paste. Then add the milk. Just add a little at a time, in a small stream, whisking and letting it sit a bit until it starts to bubble and thicken before adding a bit more. Just keep whisking and bubbling and adding until you have a little more than a cup of sauce.  Then add the cheese, a little at a time, whisking and whisking until the cheese is melted and the sauce is thick and smooth. (Save some of the cheese to sprinkle on the top.) Then add a little salt and a pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg, give it one last sound whisking, and remove it from the heat.

Drain the pasta and the cooled asparagus and mix them together in the pasta cooking pot. Add the cheese sauce and stir it all together, then pour it into a casserole dish. Sprinkle the bread crumbs and the leftover cheese on top, and cover it loosely with tin foil.

Bake the macaroni and cheese for about 25 minutes with the foil on, then remove the foil and bake for another five mintues or so. If you are smarter than I am, you will have remembered to move the top rack down far enough to put the dish under the broiler for a minute or two right at the end, but if you were dumb, like me, that’s ok because it’s perfectly tasty (and actually prettier looking) without the broiling.

Let it rest for about 10 minutes, or as long as you can possibly wait, and then whooo! Mac and cheese! Good times! This made enough for four servings, but my housemates and I are mac and cheese addicts, and we eat really big servings, so you might be able to feed a few more people. Although you shouldn’t, because mac and cheese is meant to be eaten in large servings, I think.

I suspect another addition that I didn’t even think of, which would have been over the top awesome, would be a tiny drizzle of truffle oil over it before baking. Holy crap, that would have been good. Maybe I’ll try it with my leftovers. Mmmm. Mac and cheese. There is, perhaps, nothing better in this world than noodles and melted cheese.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2007 5:54 am

    YUM! Love the wagon wheels love the asparagus.. love love love this dish! So trying it – don’t care that the weather is warming up.


  2. April 21, 2007 9:29 am

    Wagon wheels make it more fun! I love mac and cheese, I could really eat it everyday. Especially now that I appreciate different types of cheeses… mmm smoked gouda is sooo good in mac and cheese.

  3. Anna permalink
    December 24, 2008 5:59 pm

    I never thought to add asparagus to mac and cheese, sounds good! I love your beautiful casserole dish! Is it a cordon bleu? What size is it? I want an identical one!

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