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Bare Bones Mac N' Cheese
Recipe from the Tasting Table Test Kitchen
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes (plus cooking time)
¾ pound elbow macaroni
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for buttering the pan
¼ cup flour
3 cups whole milk, warmed
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
12 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated (about 4½ cups)
⅓ cup panko breadcrumbs
1. Heat the oven to 350° degrees. Butter a 2-quart casserole. Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted water to very al dente; drain.
2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the flour, mixing constantly, until golden and no longer raw smelling, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the warm milk, a little at a time. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the saucepan constantly, until it thickens enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, 5 to 10 minutes. (This is a white sauce, or bechamel). Season with ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Remove from the heat and stir in three-fourths of the cheese until melted. Fold in the cooked macaroni. Taste and season again as needed.
3. Transfer to the casserole. Top with the remaining cheese and breadcrumbs. Bake until browned and bubbly, about 30-35 minutes.
Ways to Make It Even Tastier:
1. Add 1 teaspoon dry mustard and ¼ teaspoon hot sauce to the béchamel.
2. Add a bouquet garni (a bay leaf, some whole peppercorns, thyme sprigs, and parsley stems) to the milk as you heat it, then let it simmer with the béchamel as it cooks. Remove before adding the cheese.
3. Substitute brioche breadcrumbs for regular: cut the brioche into cubes and dry them out over night (or pop them in a low temp oven (200 degrees for 40 to 60 minutes) until dry). Pulse in a food processor until crumbly.
4. Substitute other delicious cheeses for the cheddar. Let your imagine go wild here. We like combining blue and Gruyère, Taleggio and Humboldt Fog, and Taleggio and Parmesan.
5. Fold seared bacon, pancetta or guanciale pieces into the pasta before baking.
6. Try an artisan pasta in different shapes like conchiglie, gnocchetti, creste di galli, lumache, torchio, or orecchiette.