Who does not love mac and cheese? Whether it is the iconoclastic blue box or your own favorite recipe, this popular dish has become ubiquitous. You can now find deep fried mac and cheese balls and bites, pizza mac and cheese, stuffed, wrapped, waffled, sushi rolled, chocolate-covered and grilled cheese mac and cheese, and that’s such grating the surface.
With the basics of pasta and cheese, this is one food fare that has flung the doors wide open for foodies to fulfill their most fantastic fantasies. What I am going to cover are some classics, some artisan selections, some healthy replacement options and the wonderful avant-garde variations of a dish that has yet to know any bounds.Read More »
Classic Stove Top Mac and Cheese Is a Sure Bet
I must confess, I have never made this classic version, the one that uses a béchamel sauce to melt down the cheese. I just love the name, though. It’s the kind of thing you whip out when interviewing for the chef’s position. It is, however, a staple to add a creamy base to many dishes.
The classic mac and cheese starts with a roux made from equal parts butter and fat. The fat you choose can affect the flavor. Whether it is oil, butter, bacon drippings or something else, they all work. You cook the flour first, and then you add hot milk. The milk is what turns a roux into a béchamel sauce.
For classic mac and cheese, you can add a bay leaf, salt and nutmeg to the sauce while it thickens, which calls for frequent whisking to avoid clumps. Think of a giant pot of gravy base. When you add the cheese, it will get even more creamy and gooey, prime for a classic mac and cheese. Of course, you pull out that bay leaf first.
Basically, you stir the Gruyere and cheddar cheeses into the sauce until they are melted, and then you add the drained pasta to it. You can reserve some of the pasta water if you need to adjust how thick things are getting. Since you have done most of the cooking in the pot, you only need to bake this in a casserole dish for about 15 minutes, but that is enough time to get a crunchy topping if you like that sort of thing. Isn’t that the whole idea?
Variations on The Theme
Once you have the classic method down, you start making variations that satisfy a wide range of preferences. It’s the cheese that makes the difference in any of these recipes. In fact, you can have as many different versions of mac and cheese as there are so many different cheeses with their unique flavors, textures and aromas.
French-Style Stove Top
You can start the classic stove top method adding chopped garlic cloves into the butter and replacing the cheddar with brie once the rind is removed. That is not the only part that makes this one French-style, though. This one calls for whole-grain mustard to be added to the sauce. I can’t wait to try this, but I get concerned that a certain strength of flavor only needs a little to go along way.
Here is brief listing for ideas on how to change the recipe slightly for a whole new flavor:
- Smoked Mozzarella – adds roasted red peppers and diced smoked mozzarella.
- Butternut and Blue Cheese – replacing the Gruyere with crumbled blue cheese and adding butternut squash.
- Truffle – adds sautéed mushrooms and replacing the cheddar with truffle cheese, then instead of topping with cheddar for the crunchy topping, use the Gruyere.
- Lobster – go with all cheddar cheese on this one and add a full 12-ounces of chopped, cooked lobster topping it off with panko, chives and melted butter.
A Healthy Vegan Option is a Must-Have Version
A vegan option that is versatile, cheesy and tasty made from healthy ingredients appeals to everyone. It starts with a substitution for the cheese using…wait for it…sweet potatoes! This cheese replacement is so successful, you will find it useful as a dip, to spread over other foods like broccoli, potatoes or anything else you can think of where melted cheese typically goes really well.
By using the sweet potatoes, you are getting the many benefits of one of the most nutritious foods you can eat. Rich in Vitamin A, omega-3 fatty acids, carbohydrates and essential nutrients, sweet potatoes fight cancer and diabetes, treat inflammation, arthritis pain, bronchitis, dehydration and help to improve digestion.
You have a choice to use water, coconut milk, non-dairy milk, veggie broth or a combination of those to blend with the cooked sweet potatoes to achieve a creamy texture and color. To this, add nutritional yeast, which is loaded with B vitamins. This not only adds more nutritional value, it is what gives your sauce the cheesy flavor.
More Healthy Options That Won’t Leave You Wanting
Not to deviate from either the cheese or the mac, there are options to a substantial mac and cheese that provides a more robust nutritional value. The following are just some examples of more healthy options:
- Cottage Cheese – substitute cottage cheese and Dijon mustard for a sure-fire favorite
- Pumpkin – add the nutritious value, creaminess and earthiness for a fall-inspired twist
- Cauliflower – replacing the elbows with boiled cauliflower topped with breadcrumbs and broiled for the perfectly crunchy topping
- Green – a veggie-fied version that uses spinach and broccoli, and yes, it is green
Mom’s Secret Recipe
I cannot do this kind of cover on mac and cheese without sharing how mom used to make it. This is super easy, tasty and open to variations also. No need for a sauce. You start out cooking the elbows in chicken stock or broth.
Stock is the gelatinous one you get from cooking your chicken at home. Broth is the liquid one, and either one works to add some flavor to the pasta. You want to cook down the liquid rather than pour it out.
While the elbows get saturated with that stock flavor, prepare your grated cheeses, which ever ones you prefer to use. Originally, this is a cheddar/jack combination. The jack is the melty cheese. You can use any cheese, such as spicy, fruity, buttery, nutty or earthy, you get the idea.
This one is a layering effect. Start with a layer of the moist elbows on the bottom of the casserole dish followed by a generous application of cheese. Repeat this to the topmost layer, which is more cheese. This casserole dish goes into the oven to bake for at least half an hour. Base it on the how crunchy the top gets and how bubbly the rest of it gets.
The moisture in the elbows and the heat from baking meltdown all that cheese and you get a texture to your elbows you will not find in other versions of mac and cheese. Change it up. I like to add a layer of tomato slices with the best ones on top because they get broiled. You can add sliced hot dogs for the kids, or spicy sausage for mom and dad. Get creative. Have fun.
Crock Pot Mac and Cheese is Easy Cheesy
If you are looking for the one that makes easy look even easier, then creamy crock pot mac and cheese is the answer for you. Completed in stages, start with the pasta and liquids in the crock pot. You are adding everything but the cheese at this point.
After about one hour, you can add in your cheese for an additional 10 minutes, or so. This recipe is so easy, it should simply be called “Stir and Serve.” If you have an Instant Pot, you can do the same thing, but probably even a little faster.
Baked Artisan Mac and Cheese for Your Special Events
This artisan selection uses sharp white cheddar cheese. That’s it. I’m on board. You will need to follow this recipe since it has things like apple cider vinegar, chickpea miso, Manitoba Harvest Hemp Hearts, garlic, oregano and Himalayan pink salt. This one also happens to be a gluten-free, vegan option.
It is a logical progression when making mac and cheese to start adding things to make it more interesting. It is, after all, in its simplest form, a casserole, and everyone knows you can throw anything into a casserole and it is still going to be good. So, start experimenting with your classic recipe and make one you can name after yourself so it can be made famous by its popularity.