This is relatively new territory for me. I have been making Annie’s mac and cheese for my kids since they started eating solid food, and of course I ate Kraft mac and cheese as a child myself. But last January I catered a party for 60 people and they wanted to do a Southern theme. Literally the first thing that popped into my head was mac and cheese even though I had never made the “real” stuff before. The client was more excited about it than any other thing I mentioned, so I got to work on what would be the best recipe.
I ended up trying debating between two Martha Stewart recipes and was totally stumped as to which one make people swoon. We had a New Year’s Day party last year and, seeing as we were expecting about 20 people, I made both and asked people to vote for their favorite. One had a crumb topping with cheddar and Gruyere cheeses, the other had scallions mixed in along with goat cheese. The former won hands down and that is the one I made for the party to rave reviews. I even made it for the party I catered this past December, so sure I was of it’s deliciousness.
So when we decided to host a little party for my baby’s second birthday, I knew what to make. It’s winter, a lot of people with healthy appetites were coming – how else to feed them? I decided to revisit Martha but to make a slightly different recipe and I think it’s the best of them all. This one adds some tomatoes to the mix and I think that little burst of acidity and freshness adds so much. Macaroni and cheese is an incredibly rich dish. People love it but it is hard to eat too much without feeling a little sick. Although this does not skimp on the richness, the tomatoes mix it up a little bit and give your mouth a break. Another thing I like about it is that the recipe incorporates fresh thyme which also adds a nice flavor dimension.
This is not a quick dish. There are several steps and a lot of stirring over a hot stove. Nothing is difficult, just time consuming. But if you have never made “real” mac and cheese, your efforts will be well rewarded. It is one of the best comfort foods around.
For this particular recipe, Stewart recommends sharp white Cheddar cheese only. I think Gruyere adds a nice nuttiness, so I did half and half. I was feeding about 14 adults so I doubled the below recipe. If you do so, make sure you have a very large bowl to mix it all together!
7 tbsp. unsalted butter, plus more for the dish
1 1/4 cup homemade bread crumbs
1 tbsp. chopped fresh thyme
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound elbow macaroni or other short, tubular pasta
1 quart whole milk
5 tbsp. flour
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
4 cups grated cheese, about 1 pound (see my note above)
1 pound red and yellow tomatoes, cut into 1 inch pieces
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 9 x 13 inch baking dish or a 3 quart casserole dish; set aside. Melt 2 tbsp. butter and pour over the bread in a medium bowl; toss. Add 1 tsp. thyme, 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/4 pepper; toss.
2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil; add a small handful of salt. Cook the pasta until just beginning to soften, 2-3 minutes (it will not be fully cooked). Drain and rinse.
3. Warm the milk in a saucepan over medium heat. Heat the remaining 5 tbsp. butter in a high sided skillet (or a pot) over medium until foaming. Add the flour; whisk 1 minute. Slowly whisk in the warm milk. Cook, whisking, until bubbling and thickened, 8-10 minutes. Remove from heat.
4. Add 2 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. pepper, the remaining 2 tsp. thyme, the nutmeg, and the cheese to pan; stir until the cheese is melted.
5. Stir the pasta and tomatoes into the cheese sauce. Pour into the buttered dish; sprinkle with the bread crumbs. Bake until bubbling and golden, about 30 minutes. Let cool slightly before serving.