Teen Approved Mac and Cheese

It’s been 90 degrees by midmorning these last couple of days in New York—time for light and fresh and seasonal, right? Unless you have kids and, like me, (yes, even me) have pandered to their culinary whims most of their lives. So, you serve mac and cheese all year round. Yesterday my daughter, Lily, graduated from 8th grade. (My baby!) At a post-ceremony potluck we attended, there were two kinds of mac and cheese. Despite the high heat and the high, grown-up heels on the gang of girls my daughter rolls with, the pasta disappeared quicker than my platter of grilled vegetables or anything else for that matter. And why not? Mac and cheese is a universal favorite—the ultimate in comfort food—and done right it can be a healthy—well at least wholesome—dish.

In an attempt to once and for all quash my daughter’s preference for “normal” mac and cheese, (read: neon orange, comes out of a box, with processed cheese food glop that get squeezed out of a foil packet, enough sodium to rival the Dead Sea, and enough chemicals to start a home chemistry set. The kind that if you don’t eat it immediately, while it is hot, will turn into a solid mass suitable only for pothole repair), I set out, once again, to make the classic casserole from real ingredients and hope that it will convert her. I remember to keep it simple because past attempts with fancier cheeses, herb-y flavor profiles or crumbled pancetta have only elicited the dreaded “eeeewwwww!” response.

I, of course, cannot leave a simple ingredient list alone. Even this elegant and kid-friendly one adapted from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Family Style.  Milk, butter, flour, breadcrumbs, cheese have to be tweeked to include the “O” word as much as possible. The last thing we need in this house is more hormones! So, use organic, hormone-free, anti-biotic free whenever possible…even if you aren’t afraid of teen PMS like my husband and I are. (You will be.) I don’t go so far as to use whole wheat pasta because I know that will not fly, but if you have younger, still malleable children, go for it! Expand their palates while they still think you are a God!

The gruyere was questionable. It was a big jump from processed cheese product to the tangy delicate flavor of this swiss cheese combined with the sharpness of cheddar. And I knew Lily would probably pick off the tomatoes, but I had to add them, even if just for the color and to indulge a vague hope she might eat them if they were dappled with buttery breadcrumbs. No such luck…with the tomatoes, that is.

But I was rewarded with an unsolicited “this is actually amazing” first-bite comment from my daughter…and a big cheesy smile. I live for those.

Lily’s Mac and Cheese
adapted from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Family Style.

Serves 4 as a meal, 6-8 as a side dish

Kosher salt
Vegatable oil
1 lb elbow macaroni or other small pasta (shells, cavatappi, etc.)
1 quart 2% milk (you can use whole, but believe me it was rich enough without it)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (divided in two portions of 1 of 6 oz, 1 of 2 oz.)
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
12 oz (4 cups) Gruyere cheese, grated
8 oz (2 cups) extra sharp Cheddar, grated
1/2 tsp. fresh ground pepper
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
4 small tomatoes, sliced thinly
1 1/2 cup fresh white (I like Vermont Bread Co. Organic White) bread crumbs (4 or so slices, crusts removed)

Note: For the mini casserole pictured above, that I made as a “test” run for Lily, I halved this recipe.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Drizzle oil into a large pot of boiling, salted water. Add the macaroni and cook according to the directions on the package, 6-8 minutes. Drain well.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a saucepan, but don’t boil it. Melt 6 oz butter in a large pot, then add the flour. Cook this “roux” over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring with a whisk. Then, while whisking, add the hot milk and cook this for a minute or tow more, until thickened and smooth. (FYI…this is the basis for any “white” creamy sauce…a “Beschamel”). Take the pot off heat, add the grated cheeses, 1 tablespoon salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooked macaroni and stir well. Taste to make sure it’s seasoned to your liking. This is the time to tweek it. Pour the mixture into a baking dish.

Arrange sliced tomatoes on top of the pasta. Melt the remaining butter (2 oz) in a small pan and combine them with the bread crumbs. Sprinkle these on top of the tomatoes. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the sauce is bubbly and the breadcrumbs are browned on top.

To make ahead, put the mac and cheese in the baking dish, cover, and refrigerate until ready to bake. Put the tomatoes and bread crumbs on top just before baking and then bake for 40 – 50 minutes.