Saturday, October 17, 2009

Mom's Mac 'n Cheese revisited

I've always loved my mom's Mac 'n Cheese, but after reading a New York Times article, How Much Water Does Pasta Really Need?, it got me thinking about how to adapt the recipe to our current times, i.e., not so rich, trying to be frugal but not giving up too much. Why fix what ain't broke? Well, why not just for the hell of it? I almost never follow recipes exactly anyway.

Let's begin with how this dish has evolved over the years. Normally mom's version is full of cheese and whole or even evaporated milk. To make it healthier, I've been using light soy milk mainly because I'm lactose intolerant and wanted to cut down on the dairy, but also to cut down on the saturated fat. But going all the way with healthy alternatives -- soy milk, soy cheese, whole wheat pasta -- turned out less than satisfactory. Soy cheese doesn't have enough cheesy flavor and whole wheat pasta absorbs too much liquid and becomes mushy. To make it faster, I've tried not precooking the macaroni as a timesaving step, which ended up a mushy disaster.

I let the NY Times article stew in my brain for a bit, then started experimenting. Now after making several batches, I think I've hit it and even Jim "the white-and-brown-food eater" approves. The major flavor upside is there's hardly any milky creaminess to hide the cheese, so you can get away with using a lot less. And, you actually use pretty much all of the pasta water! How thrifty is that? I encourage you to try using this intriguing technique with other dishes. I've nostalgically named this dish in honor of my mom's original recipe, but she would never mess with the recipe like I've done here.

Mom's Mac 'n Cheese v. 2009
2 qts. water
1 T salt
1 lb. box of macaroni (not whole grain; try Ronzoni SmartTaste)
1 can cream of mushroom condensed soup
1 t. black pepper, fresh grated
1/2 t. nutmeg
10-12 oz. sharp or x-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 c. soy or regular milk, approx.
1/3 c. bacon bits (optional)
3 T bread crumbs (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F deg. Bring the water to a boil in pot, add the salt, then stir in the macaroni and cook for 7-8 minutes until al dente. Stir often, as the reduced water may cause the pasta to stick. Meanwhile, dump the undiluted soup, pepper and nutmeg into a 4+ cup measuring container. When the macaroni is done, drain the pasta water into the measuring container (with the soup mix) to make 4 cups. Discard any extra water if there is any. Whisk the soup mixture until blended. Spread 1/3 of the cooked macaroni evenly in a greased 13" x 9" glass pan. Scatter 1/3 of the grated cheese and 1/2 of the bacon bits, if using, on top. Repeat for the next layer. For the last layer, spread the macaroni, pour the soup mixture over it evenly (using "S" motions), then pour in approx. 1 cup of milk, or until the the liquids are ALMOST at the same level as the macaroni. Scatter the remaining cheese evenly over the top, followed by the bread crumbs, if using. Cover the pan loosely with a 1/2 parchment sheet or greased foil. Put the pan on a cookie sheet or other pan to catch any spills. Bake for about 45-55 minutes or until you can see almost all of the liquids have been absorbed (this is why using a glass pan is great). Remove the parchment/foil and bake uncovered for 10 minutes more to let the top crisp. Enjoy!