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Mac & Cheese: Creamy, fluffy or crusty — it’s all good

In good times and bad, in indulgent moods and simple ones, macaroni & cheese can be whatever we need it to be.

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Who doesn’t love macaroni & cheese? Ask pretty much anybody to list their favorite comfort foods and good ol’ M&C will be right up there with mashed potatoes, pot roast and PB&J.

It may be one of the only foods where meat-lovers and vegetarians can actually find common ground.

You can even track the economy by it. Kraft’s earnings were down late last year, thanks to price increases for some brands, but sales of its macaroni & cheese dinner in the iconic blue box were reported to be up 20 percent in the third quarter.

Mac & cheese and hard times go together like elbow macaroni and cheese sauce. But mac & cheese and good times go together, too.

A couple of years ago, when I spoke to a middle-school class about Thanksgiving foods, I asked the kids to tell me where their families were from and what was always on their holiday table. Most of the children who were from the South named macaroni & cheese. That mystified their classmates from regions of the country where macaroni & cheese is a main dish, not a side dish.

Still, when someone tells me they love macaroni & cheese, I have to ask: Which one?

There is no one macaroni & cheese, any more than there is one American accent.

There’s the creamy kind, usually based on bechamel — a.k.a. white sauce — with cheese stirred in.

There’s the custard kind, with noodles floating in fluffy curds of egg-based sauce.

There’s the crusty kind, topped with bread crumbs, crushed potato chips or an extra layer of cheese that bakes into chewy brown goodness.

And there’s certainly the over-the-top kind. Macaroni & cheese is such a bland canvas, everybody likes to have their way with it. Carnivores work in bacon or ham. Chefs pull out the truffles or lobster.

Gourmets can really get carried away, replacing the elbow macaroni with artisan pastas and the cheddar cheese with pedigreed relatives like Italian tallegio.

I have news for them. I recently spent a morning working through the variations, and I can happily report that American cheese and canned evaporated milk can play just as much a role in good macaroni & cheese as heavy cream and extra-sharp cheddar.

Maybe that’s why macaroni & cheese stays so popular. In good times and bad, in indulgent moods and simple ones, macaroni & cheese can be whatever we need it to be.

No matter what happens, it’s there for us.

USING YOUR NOODLES

The blandness of macaroni and the sharpness of cheese lend themselves to playing with other flavors. Any of these will be at home: Mustards, from dry to Dijon; paprika, sweet or smoked; garlic; onion; and nutmeg, particularly in bechamel-based versions.

Stir macaroni as soon as you add it to the cooking water, and at least a couple of times while it’s cooking, to keep the noodles from sticking to the pot.

Use a roomy pot and plenty of water to cook macaroni. It’s easier to cook a little pasta in a big pot than it is to cook a lot of pasta in a too-small pot.

Not sure how much macaroni is in that opened box? Eight ounces of uncooked elbow macaroni by weight equals 2 packed cups and makes 5 cups cooked, drained macaroni.

CUSTARDY MACARONI & CHEESE

From “The Gift of Southern Cooking,” by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock. This is so custardy, it’s almost like a cheese and macaroni pudding. But it’s terrifically flavorful and wonderfully fluffy.

Butter for pan

1 3/4 cups (about 8 ounces) uncooked elbow macaroni

1 1/4 cups (5 ounces) extra-sharp cheddar, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more for cooking water

1 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

2/3 cup sour cream

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/3 cup grated onion

1 1/2 cups half-and-half

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 2/3 cups (6 ounces) grated extra-sharp cheddar

COAT a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with butter and set aside. Cook the macaroni in a large pot of boiling salted water until just tender, about 9 minutes. Drain well and spread in the baking dish. Mix the cubed cheddar into the macaroni and set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

PUT flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, dry mustard, black pepper, cayenne and nutmeg in a large mixing bowl and whisk to blend. Add the sour cream and beaten eggs and whisk until well-blended. Whisk in the onion, half-and-half, cream and Worcestershire until blended, making sure the flour is well-incorporated.

POUR over the macaroni and cubed cheese and stir to blend. (It will seem very soupy.)

SPRINKLE the grated cheese evenly over the surface. Bake about 30 minutes, until the custard is set around the edges but the center is still a little loose.

REMOVE from oven and let stand 10 minutes to allow the custard to thicken before serving.

THREE-CHEESE MAC & CHEESE

This falls into the creamy camp, with a classic bechamel base. From “Ten: All the Foods We Love,” by Sheila Lukins (Workman, 2008).

1 tablespoon olive oil

16 ounces elbow macaroni, uncooked

6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) unsalted butter

6 tablespoons all-purpose flour

4 cups whole milk (see note)

1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) grated Gruyere

1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) grated sharp cheddar

1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) grated mozzarella

2 dashes Tabasco

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Sweet paprika, to taste

BRING a large pot of salted water to boil. Add oil, then pasta or macaroni and stir. Cook until just tender, about 9 minutes. Drain and return to pot. Cover to keep macaroni warm and set aside.

PREHEAT oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 13-by-9-inch baking dish and set aside. Place the milk in a saucepan and place over medium-low heat until warmed through. Stir the three cheeses together in a mixing bowl. Remove 3/4 cup and set aside.

MELT the 6 tablespoons butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Sprinkle in the flour and whisk to combine. Cook, whisking, for 3 minutes. (Don’t brown.) Slowly whisk in warm milk. Increase heat to medium and cook, whisking, until smooth and thickened, about 5 to 6 minutes.

REMOVE from heat. Stir in mixed cheeses by small handfuls, whisking until each addition has melted completely before adding more. Return to low heat if necessary. Season with Tabasco, salt, pepper and paprika.

STIR the reserved pasta, breaking up clumps, then stir in the cheese sauce, folding with noodles until well-coated.

SPREAD in prepared baking dish and sprinkle the reserve 3/4 cup cheese evenly over the top. Bake about 25 minutes, until the top is golden and crusty

NOTE: Although the recipe specified whole milk, we used nonfat for testing and it worked fine. If nonfat is what you have on hand and you want to make it a little richer, substitute half-and-half for 1 cup of the milk.

CREAMY, CRUSTY MACARONI & CHEESE

Believe or not, evaporated milk and American cheese are tricks to getting creamy mac & cheese with maximum richness. The blend of American and cheddar brings the best of both texture and flavor. You could replace the bacon with diced ham, or skip the meat. The crumb crust adds a nice crunchy texture.

8 ounces (about 2 cups) uncooked elbow macaroni

2 tablespoons butter

8 strips bacon, diced

1 cup American cheese, minced (see note)

1 cup grated extra-sharp cheddar, divided

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) regular evaporated milk

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1/4 teaspoon Tabasco

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Topping:

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup freshly grated breadcrumbs from Italian, French or any crusty bread

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

BRING a large pot of salted water to boil and add macaroni. Stir and cook for 9 minutes, stirring a couple of times. Drain well and place in a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Add 2 tablespoons butter and stir to coat. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

PLACE bacon in a heated skillet and cook about 5 minutes over medium heat, until fat is released but bacon is still pliable. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel. Stir into macaroni in baking dish.

PLACE dry mustard in a large mixing bowl, then add Tabasco and 1/4 teaspoon water. Stir to form a paste. Whisk in evaporated milk, salt, pepper and garlic powder. Whisk in eggs, then stir in the American cheese and 1/2 cup of the cheddar. Pour over the macaroni, pressing it down to make sure the noodles are all covered.

REMOVE 2 tablespoons of the remaining cheddar and set aside, then sprinkle the rest evenly over the macaroni, pushing it down into the mixture.

MELT the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the breadcrumbs and cook, stirring, until well-blended and a little crispy. Remove from heat and cool. Add remaining 2 tablespoons cheddar and 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder and toss until evenly distributed. Sprinkle evenly over macaroni.

BAKE about 30 minutes, until topping is golden.

NOTE: American cheese is almost always sold as slices now. We stacked 8 slices and cut them into thin strips and then crosswise into small dice.

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