kitchen firsts: stephen makes his famous mac and cheese
Stephen, in general, is not much of a cook. He does enjoy food to be sure, but is mostly not too interested in the pre-eating process. There is one exception though– Stephen makes a mean macaroni and cheese, and he does it his way.
We certainly eat our fair share of macaroni and cheese around here, but we usually rely on my family’s standby recipe, which is pretty everyday friendly. I actually haven’t even had Stephen’s in years, because my version is quicker and one-skillet, and because Stephen’s, with it’s nickname “cheese coma,” has a reputation for being delicious but also rather decadent for everyday eating. But we’ve had it in the back of our minds that it was about time for Stephen to make this again and do a little guest blogging, and this weekend seemed the perfect time, as my wisdom tooth extraction is forcing me to eat squishy squashy foods, and this is the ultimate in cheesy gooey yum.
Now that I’ve actually witnessed and documented the making of the cheese coma, I see that it isn’t actually so very different than my usual version, and while you can’t escape its deliciousness, it doesn’t have to be as intense as its reputation suggests. It has an oniony bechamel just like mine does, but adds a few bonuses: a nice boost of flavor from the bay leaf, pepper and nutmeg, and a crunchy cheesy coating from the extra step of baking it with bread crumbs. The final result combines a crunchy baked crust with an oozey and decadent interior rich with the flavorful bechamel trickling down through the cheese and pasta. I thought I remembered that the recipe was made with whole milk and like a whole block of cheese, which scared me away, but I see now that the recipe is only as scary as you want it to be, as you can make it totally successfully and deliciously with skim milk, and just a couple cups of cheese. After tasting it, I have to say that this recipe is totally worth the tiny bit of extra effort it takes to make it. I expect that our weeknight standard may still be the one-skillet recipe, but this recipe definitely turns dinner into a more special affair.
Stephen’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese (aka “Cheese Coma”)
Adapted from The Vegetarian Epicure, by Anna Thomas
1/2 lb penne or mini penne (Stephen insists penne is the only way to go, but you can substitute the pasta of your choice)
3 T butter
1 small onion, diced
3 cups of milk (whole milk traditionally, but we usually use skim)
3 T flour
1 or 2 bay leaves, scrunched up a bit
salt and a generous dose of freshly ground black pepper
pinch of nutmeg
3 cups grated cheese (you can go all good cheddar if that’s what you have, or combine some cheddar with a mix of cheeses such as asiago, gruyere, parmesan, or fontina)
1/4 cup panko or fresh bread crumbs + 1/4 cup grated parmesan
variation: add 1/2 tsp thyme along with other spices
In a saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add onions and cook until soft and translucent but not browned. Meanwhile, start a large pot of salted water to boil for the pasta. When your pasta water boils, cook the pasta according to package directions, drain and reserve.
When the onions are soft, add the flour and stir to make a roux. Cook the roux until starting to turn golden brown. Add milk gradually (start with about 1/2 cup at a time), letting each bit heat up before you stir it so that that the bechamel doesn’t get clumpy. Then stir until smooth before you add more milk. You will have sort of a pasty onion glob at first, but it will get more liquidy as you continue to add the milk.
When all the milk is added, toss in bay leaves, salt, pepper, and nutmeg (adding thyme if desired). Raise heat to medium high, and cook slowly until the sauce simmers and thickens, stirring regularly to prevent scalding. While the sauce is thickening, grate your cheese or cheeses.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2 qt casserole dish, then prepare to layer your pasta, bechamel and cheeses. Start with 1/3 of the pasta, then cover with a layer of cheese and a generous douse of the sauce (about half of it). Repeat with another 1/3 of the pasta and cheese, and cover with the rest of the sauce. Finish with a third layer of pasta, a little sprinkling of whatever cheese is left, and then top with the panko and parmesan. If you want to be extra decadent, you can top the whole thing off with another light sprinkling of grated cheese.
Bake, uncovered, for 25 to 30 minutes or until top is golden brown and bubbly. Serve hot and enjoy immediately!