I’ve heard quite a few times lately how “hard” macaroni and cheese is to make, or how “time consuming” the process is. I usually ask what kind of mac & cheese they are used to making or eating, and for the most part if it isn’t that heavily processed “easy mac,” it’s a variation of some southern recipe of mac & cheese. I can’t stomach either kind. The easy mac usually makes a not so easy and quick exit, as does the heavy, and greasy southern style option. >Shudder< I offer you a simple, anyone can do it, style that is cost effective, can be decreased or increased depending on your needs, and easy to customize to your preferences.
The base amount of my recipe includes:
1 box (1lb) of elbow macaroni, ¼ chopped of a white onion, 1 small chopped green pepper (half of a large one), 1 cup of milk ( I use whole milk), 1 cup of sharp cheddar cheese (regular fat amount), ¼ cup of butter (real butter, not a substitute), 1 tablespoon flour (white, bleached, all purpose), salt, and black pepper to taste.
I start with a rue. If you’ve never made one before, do not be intimidated. It’s a lot easier than you think. The important part of this is to keep the pot (preferably your best non-stick pot) on Medium heat (medium low if your stove top likes to be a super stove). I usually start making the rue first so everything ends together. Drop your butter in with the chopped onions, peppers, salt, and pepper. Add your seasonings now because it will be very hard to salt or season once everything is mixed together in the pan before going in the oven. The intent is not to sautee the veggies, but you want their flavor mixing and mingling with the butter to create a delicious base flavor. This part smells amazing.
Once you have that going, feel free to turn the oven on at 350 degrees (325 degrees if your oven is super duper), and start boiling your water for the pasta. That usually doesn’t take too long. I throw in a ¼ teaspoon of salt to the pasta water at the start, no olive oil. Once it’s boiling, toss in your pasta, and cook according to the directions on the box. Each box of pasta isn’t created equal anymore. Fresh pasta doesn’t take long at all to cook, and a lot of products now offer quick boil pasta.
By now the butter should have melted, give your rue mixture a stir, and add the cup of milk. I usually give this a few minutes to let the milk thicken a bit (max of 10 minutes). You don’t want your mac & cheese to have milk skin in it. Then add the flour, and stir it in well. The flour can be very stubborn, but it will get mixed in accordingly. Give that 5 minutes to simmer, then add the cheese. I usually dump the bag of cheese in then blend everything together well until you see it thicken and come together as the sauce. It won’t be long at all. You may worry the cheese is sticking to the spoon, but don’t fret. The more you stir, the faster the cheese will leave the spoon and join the sauce. Just go easy on it. This isn’t meant to be abused, and don’t add too much air to the rue either. Whisks are out. If you prefer, you can give your stirring spoon a quick spritz of cooking spray at the start so nothing will stick to it.
At this point everything should be ready to go in the big pan. Pasta should be cooked, drained and added to the baking pan. I always recommend using a larger dish when making anything with pasta. You need space for the sauce, and to avoid spills – not just in the oven, but when serving and stirring the dish. It’s cool if the pasta has cooled off a bit, it’s going into the oven anyway. Carefully, (my goodness, please do this slowly so you don’t get burned) add the rue/sauce to the pasta. You can either add a small amount at a time then mix until it is all added, or pour it completely in the baking dish and mix the pasta so everything is mixed together. Pop that bad boy into the oven for 30 minutes, then let it cool for 10 minutes on the stove before serving.
It may seem like a long time, the 30 minutes in the oven, and 20 minutes on the stove, but it’s well worth it, and can be frozen for future use if need be. Your family and friends will love it as a side dish, or the entree.
After Bites: In this section are ways you can alter this for more variety.
- Pasta: Feel free to use whole wheat pasta, gluten free, white flour pasta – whatever. The important thing is to follow the instructions on the box in how to properly cook it so you don’t have soggy noodles at the end. Also, if you love using other kinds of pasta, go for it. There is no rule that it has to be elbow macaroni in mac & cheese.
- Chopped Vegetables: I prefer mine rough chopped. I like to eat & see them in the meal. You can add other color peppers, or even jalapeno if you are feeling bold. Remember that adding spice means you will have to change the cheese you choose. Spicier peppers will need Pepper Jack, Colby, or maybe a Mexican cheese so the flavors balance. Sharp white cheddar will be lost in the mix as far as spicy flavor goes. If you don’t like peppers or onions, that’s okay too. They aren’t necessary, just flavor enhancers.
- Fat content: I haven’t made this with soy milk or any other variation of non-dairy milks, so I can’t say whether they will bind together well in a rue as dairy milk does. I prefer items with more fat for more flavor and they yield a thicker rue/sauce. If you want to use a lower fat content, that’s fine too, just note the rue/sauce will be a bit thinner, even after baking. Adding less milk won’t solve the issue. If you go that route by using less milk, you may not have enough rue/sauce for the pasta. This also goes for the butter. I use real butter (salted) because it will melt and blend well. The butter alternatives don’t mix well, and the flavor doesn’t add up at the end. This may cause the rue/sauce to be runny as well. They definitely don’t bake well either.
- Flour: I use all purpose flour because it’s thicker than cake flour, and helps thicken the rue. If you’re using gluten free flour, note it won’t thicken as much. Whole wheat flour has a taste that I don’t feel blends well with the recipe, so use at your discretion.
- Meat(s): If you choose to use animal meat, make sure it is properly cooked thoroughly first before adding it to the macaroni and cheese. I can’t stress that enough. I don’t want anyone getting sick from under cooked chicken. 30 minutes in the oven isn’t going to cook it properly enough, and this dish shouldn’t be cooked any longer than 30 minutes either or else it will dry out and the top will start to burn. Feel free to use chicken, ground beef, ground turkey, veggie meat, or even thin sliced steak to turn this into a complete meal.
- Toppings: Breadcrumbs are always a fun touch if you have them in your pantry. Just make sure they are plain so it doesn’t throw the flavor off.