Monday, August 22, 2011

Meatless Monday: Homemade Macaroni and Cheese

Sometimes, my husband's lunches catch the attention of his co-workers. As you can imagine, I enjoy this sort of validation, so whenever Kevin gets any sort of comment about his lunch, he passes it on to me. Anyway, one day my husband was eating leftovers for lunch and someone saw him and said, "Is that homemade macaroni and cheese? I haven't had that since I was a kid!" Then someone else dropped by his office for a minute, noticed his lunch, and said, "Is that homemade mac and cheese? I'm going to make that tonight!"  Another co-worker, "Homemade macaroni and cheese! Wow!" Those leftovers got more attention than they deserved. Sure, it was yummy, but even when mac and cheese is made from scratch, it doesn't make much time or effort to make.

I love homemade macaroni and cheese for lots of reasons besides it being one of those tasty comfort foods.  I initially got the recipe from a Rachael Ray cookbook years ago (incidentally, I'm almost certain this one was the only recipe I made from it) and have since tweaked it a little. I always have the ingredients on hand so it is one of my go-to recipes when I'm low on energy and/or ideas for dinner. If I can't think of anything to make, I'll just whip up this recipe, throw in some frozen vegetables, call it a meal, and everyone's happy and fed. Not only does this make it a convenient and delicious dinner, but a frugal one, too.

As I mentioned before it's really easy to make -- I can whip it up in about 15 minutes (that is, if you don't count the time waiting for the water to boil).  And, in my humble opinion, the homemade macaroni and cheese is way better than the neon orange stuff that comes in a blue box. Just sayin'.

Homemade Macaroni and Cheese -- adapted from Rachael Ray's recipe in 30-Minute Meals 2

16 oz. macaroni (I buy it 1 lb. boxes so I don't have to worry about measuring), cooked and drained
2 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil (I don't really measure this one -- just a couple swirls around the pan)
3 tbsp. flour
1 1/2 cups milk (see below for more detail on what kind of milk to use)
3 cups of shredded cheese (If you want to be traditional, go with cheddar. But I say, use whatever you think would work. We really like it with colby jack cheese. )
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
fresh or frozen vegetables (optional)

To start, in a dutch oven, bring about 6-8 cups of water to a boil (just fill up the pot about 3/4 of the way). Once boiling, add macaroni and some salt. Cook according to directions on box. One variation: since I usually just serve this as the main course, I like to mix in some vegetables. In the past I've used broccoli, peas, cauliflower, and green beans. {The picture above features our dinosaur variation -- I told Max once that the broccoli are little trees and now he always pretends to be a very hungry, plant-eating dinosaur.} Whenever I add vegetables, I'll throw them in the pot with the pasta just a couple minutes before the cooking time is up (meaning I'll add the veggies at the 9 minute mark since it takes 11 minutes for the macaroni to be al dente). Drain.

Meanwhile, as the pasta is boiling...

Over medium-high heat, add the butter and olive oil to a deep skillet. Once the the butter has melted into the oil, add the flour. Whisk this together and cook for just a minute or so. FYI, this mixture is called a roux. Just thought I'd mention it. Don't you feel all culinary and fancy now?

Gradually add the milk and stir constantly until mixture becomes bubbly and starts to thicken.

Note: The recipe I first followed called for whole milk, but I've used 1% and even skim milk before. The lower fat content makes it take longer to thicken and it's not as creamy, but it works. When I made it most recently, I mixed 1 cup of 1% milk with 1/2 cup of cream. It gave it a nice consistency and it thickened pretty quickly.

Once the sauce has thickened, add the cheese. You can measure out the 3 cups of cheese, but I usually just measure by handfuls -- two to three big handfuls works well. As you can see above, my little sous chef went a bit crazy with the cheese. Oh well. Who has ever said, "Hmmmm. This macaroni and cheese is just a bit too cheesy."?  In any case, stir the cheese until it combines and melts into the sauce. Add the nutmeg (sounds weird but add it) and cayenne. Salt and pepper to taste.

Mix in the cooked pasta (and vegetables, if using) and stir until the noodles are evenly coated in sauce.

There you have it -- homemade macaroni and cheese. Not only is it easy, but just about everyone loves it...

...especially hungry little boys..I mean, plant-eating dinosaurs.


k. said...

I'm on a juice cleanse this week, and this just about made me give that up. Wow! This looks so good! Come next monday, I'm making it!

Kate said...

I recently found your blog (FYI I think it was through your link on Little House in the Suburbs). I liked it enough that I've been reading through your archives- hence the comment on a post from 1 1/2 years ago! Two things for you-
1) my mac and cheese has onion & garlic sauteed in the butter/olive oil, I think its such a yummy addition.
2) I use american cheese because the original recipe did and I was never happy with how cheddar melted. Does the colby melt smoother than the cheddar does? I may have to experiment with a combo of cheeses next time.

Heather said...

Thanks for reading -- and welcome! :)

I'm totally going to add onion and garlic next time -- that sounds great!

I think the colby jack melts really well -- it melts quickly and smoother (is it more smoooth?)than cheddar.

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