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Warm and cheesy made easy

With these scrumptious macaroni and cheese recipes, your legend as a chef of comfort food is assured

DCF 1.0

A creamy, delicious aroma wafts through the house as a pan is taken from the oven. Family members and guests eagerly tuck in their napkins. The awaited dish couldn’t be more humble, or more scrumptious: homemade macaroni and cheese, enhanced with just enough special touches to take it from ordinary to Wow!

As the recipes here attest, there’s a reason mac ‘n’ cheese tops the list of favorite comfort foods for many of us. Rich and flavorful, with a texture that’s easy on the mouth, it’s the kind of dish that can make a cook a star without requiring a daunting amount of labor.

Any type of pasta can become a comforting plate of goodness; macaroni just happens to be among America’s top choices. The term maccheroni in Italian refers to dried pasta made without egg; it comes in a variety of shapes. In North America, macaroni is generally used as a name for a tubular and bent noodle, also referred to as elbow macaroni. The first renditions of macaroni were cooked in water or broth, with cheese sprinkled on top. Macaroni in Italy is served more often with tomato sauce than au gratin (baked in a white sauce with cheese).

Some questions trouble the history of macaroni-namely, where it came from and who introduced it. The most popular version is that Marco Polo brought macaroni back from China in 1295. Food historian Clifford Wright believes the Arabs invented macaroni after they lived in Sicily, where wheat was cultivated. Macaroni shipments from Sicily to Genoa were recorded in the 1100s.

From there, macaroni became a popular food in Italy. Italians perfected the art of macaroni making during the Renaissance, and it became a staple food, eventually spreading throughout Europe. English colonists brought it to the New World.

The first pasta factory opened in Philadelphia in the late 1700s. Eventually, more factories opened and the price went down, allowing the working class to afford macaroni. Recipes were published in cookbooks from the 1800s.

Mac ‘n’ cheese today

In 1937, Kraft Foods introduced a macaroni and cheese dinner in a box, and it quickly became a favorite American comfort food. Today, Kraft claims to sell a million boxes of macaroni and cheese dinners a day.

Americans love mac ‘n’ cheese, as we affectionately call it. Macaroni and cheese is a culinary classic as well as a comfort food, but it’s full of calories and fat. Enjoy this legendary dish as a comfort food every now and then, whether it’s served as a warming winter supper or a special celebratory meal, but it may not be a food to be eaten on a regular basis.

To help cut calories, use lower fat milk, such as 2 percent and use less cheese. Using whole-wheat pasta gives the dish more fiber and better nutritional value; I tend to use half whole-wheat and half semolina pasta. I add vegetables to my mac ‘n’ cheese to make the dish more healthful.

All-American macaroni and cheese

A simple, homey dish, this version doesn’t have a lot of spice but is a satisfying comfort food. Experiment with other cheeses; I usually use at least 1 cup cheddar, along with about 1/2 to 1 cup of smoked Swiss cheese.

1 pound macaroni, bowtie, or shell noodles, cooked al dente, drained in a colander, tossed with 1 teaspoon olive oil and 1 clove pressed garlic, and seasoned lightly with salt and freshly ground pepper

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup chopped onion

4 tablespoons unbleached flour

2 to 3 large cloves garlic, minced or pressed

4 cups whole milk, divided

1 1/2 teaspoons paprika

1 1/2 teaspoons mustard powder

2 teaspoons fresh minced thyme and/or marjoram, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme and/or marjoram leaves, crumbled

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 cups grated cheddar cheese, plus 1/2 cup for topping, divided

4 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley, optional

Heat oven to 350 F. Butter 2-quart baking dish; set aside.

Cook pasta while preparing sauce; follow instructions above for draining in colander.

In nonreactive saute pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add flour and stir for about 3 minutes. Add garlic and stir 1 minute more. Add 1 cup milk and stir well to blend. Add remaining milk, whisking to get rid of any lumps. Add paprika, mustard powder, thyme and/or marjoram, salt, and pepper.

When sauce is hot, sprinkle in 1 cup cheese and stir well. When melted, add second cup cheese and stir well. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Place half the macaroni in bottom of prepared dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cover with half the sauce. Repeat with remaining macaroni and cover with remaining sauce.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes; spread remaining 1/2 cup cheese over top and bake for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and allow dish to sit for at least 5 minutes before serving. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley, if desired. Yields 6 to 8 servings.

South-of-the-border macaroni and cheese

This is a zesty version of mac ‘n’ cheese. Roasted chilies are delicious here, and I’ve used Southwestern herbs like cumin and cilantro to complement this dish. If you do not like cilantro, use Italian oregano instead, or some parsley combined with the more piquant Greek or Mexican oreganos. If you don’t like it too spicy, then use all cheddar.

1 pound macaroni, bowtie, or shell noodles, cooked al dente, drained in colander, tossed with 1 teaspoon olive oil and 1 clove pressed garlic, and seasoned lightly with salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup chopped onion

4 tablespoons unbleached flour

2 to 3 large cloves garlic, minced or pressed

4 cups whole milk, divided

1 teaspoon paprika

1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seed, toasted and ground

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup grated cheddar cheese, divided

1 cup grated jalapeno or habanero Jack cheese, divided

1/2 cup salsa

About 1/2 cup fresh chopped cilantro leaves

4 to 6 large green chilies, roasted, peeled, seeded, and cut into strips

1 cup tortilla chips, crushed

Heat oven to 350 F. Butter 2-quart baking dish; set aside.

Cook pasta while preparing the sauce; follow instructions above for draining in colander.

In nonreactive saute pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add flour and stir for 3 minutes. Add garlic and stir 1 minute more. Add 1 cup milk and stir well to blend. Add remaining milk, whisking to get rid of any lumps. Add paprika, cumin, salt, and pepper.

When sauce is hot, sprinkle in half the cheeses and stir well. When melted, add half the remaining cheeses and stir well. Stir in salsa and cilantro; remove from heat. Season with salt, pepper, and cumin to taste. Toss cooked macaroni with green chilies. Place half the macaroni and chilies in bottom of prepared dish; season lightly with salt and pepper. Spread half the sauce over macaroni. Repeat another layer with remaining macaroni and chilies mixture and sauce; spread remaining cheese over top. Scatter crushed tortilla chips over top.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow dish to stand for at least 5 minutes before serving. Yields 6 to 8 servings.

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