I love quick and easy recipes. So I must confess, when I make macaroni and cheese I generally cook it on the stove top and subsequently eat it as fast as I can get it onto my plate. But if I had my choice, I like a bubbly casserole of macaroni and cheese, moist, oozing with cheese, spiked with a little hot mustard and paprika. The perfect macaroni and cheese for me would also have some chewy cheese around the edges and a crisp topping for contrast. I wondered, does everyone prefer this style? So I asked on Twitter and fifty nine people told me they prefer baked macaroni and cheese and about four said they are happy with stove top versions. Baked it is!
Macaroni and cheese is a very versatile dish, some recipes use a white sauce, others a custard sauce and some have no sauce at all. Many variations include the addition of ham, bacon, tomatoes or peas. When it comes to cheese, I've seen recipes using American cheese, gruyere, cheddar, Colby, Monterey jack, and even goat cheese. Most recipes I've seen rely on a combination of cheeses, which adds more depth of flavor.
In preparing to create a baked version I read an article in the New York Times that said most times recipes don't use enough cheese, they recommended twice as much cheese as macaroni. It took several tries to get this recipe right, and along the way I discovered a few more keys to a great macaroni and cheese casserole. If you cook the macaroni all the way through, it will be overcooked after you bake it. For baked versions, you need to undercook the macaroni, and make sure the sauce is fairly soupy so the macaroni has something to absorb. I like layering some cheese to ensure some gooey cheesiness along with a cheesy sauce. Finally a topping of butter, parmesan and panko yields a crunchy and flavorful crust. Panko is crunchy even before being baked, but if you want a dark brown crust, you may need to broil it for a few minutes.
For this recipe I used a combination of sharp cheddar and a fairly new cheese, Bellavitano made by Sartori in Wisconsin. In some ways it's a bit similar to parmesan cheese, it has a dry texture and little crunchy crystals, but it's also a bit like an aged cheddar in terms of flavor and how it melts. Because it's so intensely flavored you don't need quite as much of it when you cook with it. My personal touches to this recipe were the addition of sweet sauteed onions, smoked paprika and piquillo peppers. I wanted to spice it up, but gently. The smoked paprika also lends an orange color to the casserole which is nice if you are using a white cheddar, as I did.
Macaroni & Cheese with Spanish PeppersServes 6-8
3/4 lb elbow macaroni
1/4 cup butter
1 medium onion, diced
1 Tablespoon Spanish smoked sweet or hot paprika "pimenton de la vera"
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 cup all purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
1/2 lb Bellavitano cheese, shredded
1/2 lb sharp or extra sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
10 ounces about 1 1/4 cups piquillo peppers drained and diced
1 cup panko bread crumbs
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta to the water, cook until almost al dente (half as long as directed) drain and reserve.
Heat a large pot over medium heat and add butter. When butter melts, add the onions and cook until softened, about 5 minutes, stir in paprika and dry mustard, cook over low for about a minute. Add the flour and cook a minute more, stirring. Whisk in milk slowly, and bring up to a simmer, thicken over medium low heat for a couple of minutes.
Turn off the heat and allow to cool for about 5 minutes, then stir in the drained macaroni, Bellavitano cheese and piquillo peppers. Layer the pasta and cheddar cheese in a broiler safe 13 x 9 inch pan, in 3 layers, starting with the macaroni and ending with the cheese. In a small bowl combine the panko, butter. and parmesan. Sprinkle topping evenly over macaroni and bake for 30 minutes. Broil for 2-3 minutes if you want a browner crust.
For more macaroni and cheese recipes check out http://www.30days30waysmacandcheese.com/