Macaroni and cheese – known to many as the stuff in the blue box with the packet of yellow powder, an easy dish that the whole family likes or a tried-and-true part of holiday or party buffets. It is all of the above in our house. When he wants a treat, Calvin asks for Kraft Mac and Cheese. Much as I dislike processed food, I think it can have a place as an occasional indulgence. I include homemade mac and cheese in the menu rotation often since we all eat it and like it, which is rare in a house of picky eaters. And I don’t think Easter dinner would be the same if I didn’t make macaroni and cheese to go with the ham.
You might balk at making a cheese sauce, but it takes about as much time as bringing the water to a boil and cooking the pasta. I prefer to bake the pasta and sauce so the top and the edges get nice and crunchy, and I can use the baking time to finish the rest of dinner. If you think you will be crunched for time, you can grate the cheese ahead of time and keep it in a covered container in the fridge until you are ready to use it. Then dinner really is a matter of about ten minutes actual cooking and half an hour of baking. You can even make the whole casserole, up to the baking, and store it in the fridge, covered, until you are ready to slip it in the oven half an hour before you want to serve it.
We serve this as a main dish often, which not everyone is comfortable with. I once took a huge casserole dish of macaroni and cheese to a friend after she had a baby. I thought they would be able to heat it up for dinner and only have to do veggies. She was thrilled and then started talking about making chicken breasts to go with it. I was mortified that it looked like I had only brought her a partial dinner. Lesson learned – dinner isn’t dinner to some people without meat.
I sometimes make this with whole wheat pasta, or half whole wheat and half regular. I sometimes add the butter to the crumbs, and sometimes just sprinkle the crumbs on top, without using the butter. Mix up the cheeses to use what you have, if you like. Sharper flavored cheeses are better than mild ones. The cream cheese replaces the Velveeta called for in the original recipe. It adds a little creaminess and helps avoid the stringiness you can get with a lot of regular cheese and no added fat in the sauce. You can leave it out or substitute more cheddar and Fontina or Swiss for the same amount. I have even used Brie in place of the cream cheese, which was wonderful, but I don’t always have that on hand.
Whether you serve this as a main dish or a side dish, it is a crowd pleaser. Whenever I take it to a family or church dinner I am lucky if I come home with more than a crust around the edges. Post in the comments if you come up with other cheese combinations or other versions of mac and cheese that your family likes.
Four Cheese Macaroni and Cheese
Adapted from Cooking Light
By The Cook’s Life
6-8 main dish servings
If you want to make this ahead of time, prepare through combining the pasta and cheese sauce. Cover and store in the fridge until you are ready to bake it. You can do this up to 24 hours before serving. Top with breadcrumbs right before baking.
3-4 cups dry pasta (elbows, corkscrews or other short pasta)
1/3 cup flour
2 2/3 cups milk, any kind (I usually use skim)
1 cup (4 ounces) Swiss or Fontina cheese, grated
3/4 cup (3 ounces) sharp cheddar, grated
½ cup (2 ounces) Parmesan cheese, grated*
2 ounces cream cheese (light or regular), cut into small pieces, room temperature
1 cup dry breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon butter, melted (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 2-quart casserole dish.
Cook pasta just until still very al dente. The pasta will cook more in the oven, so leave it very underdone. Drain pasta and set aside.
Make cheese sauce while pasta is boiling. In a medium saucepan or skillet, mix flour with 1/3 cup milk until smooth. Gradually add remaining milk and stir until combined. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly until thick enough to coat the spoon, about 8 minutes. Add cheeses and stir until melted. Remove from heat.
Add cooked pasta to cheese sauce and stir gently. Pour into greased casserole. Combine breadcrumbs and butter. Sprinkle on top of pasta and bake for 30 minutes, or until browned and bubbly.
Store any leftovers in the fridge. Reheats well.
*Don’t use Kraft or other powdered Parmesan cheese for this. Buy a block and shred your own or buy a tub of shredded Parmesan cheese.