Homemade Stovetop Mac and Cheese with Herb Breadcrumbs

Lisa writes: I want to start making homemade mac and cheese for my kids (the boxed stuff grosses me out), but I’ve never tried. Advice?? Quick and easy is what I’m hoping for.

Tony’s take: I’m with you in this fight, Lisa. Macaroni and cheese has become my raison d’etre. It’s the gateway processed food. The habit may start innocently enough, but the next thing you know, you’re a teenager on somebody’s basement couch, chasing handfuls of Cheetos and Jax with hits of Cheese Whiz. Full disclosure: that story is my own; I lived it. And I never fully recovered; I still have a soft spot for Cheez-its and Cheetos (and, hell, Laughing Cow cheese cubes). The thing is, you can do better. Homemade mac and cheese is really easy – about 20 minutes, or the time it takes to cook pasta. For what you’re up to, Lisa, you’re best off confining the cooking to the stovetop (ie: no baking). Cook a small-shaped pasta (like elbows or mini shells), mix with a quick cheese sauce (milk thickened with flour and cheese – cheddar, Monterrey Jack, Parmigiano, whatever), and sprinkle with toasted Panko for crunch. And it’s as easy as that, though you can always embellish, depending on the taste bud tolerance of your crew:  fold in some sauteed wild mushrooms, browned ground beef, blanched green vegetables (like asparagus, green beans, or peas), or pantry ingredients (like sun-dried tomatoes). And then be a proud mom because you’re doing right by the next generation!

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The Recipe

(Serves 4 to 6)

1. Make the sauce: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil (about 3 or 4 quarts water with 2 Tbs. salt). Meanwhile, melt 4 Tbs. butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add 4 Tbs. all-purpose flour and cook, whisking, so the buttery paste turns light brown and has a slightly toasted smell, 1 to 2 minutes. Add 2 1/2 cups milk (preferably whole – to speed things up, zap the milk in the microwave for 1-2 min so it’s warm before this step) and cook, whisking every 30 seconds or so  to break up any floury lumps, until the mixture almost comes to a simmer and starts to thicken, 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in 1 1/2 cups grated cheddar and 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano and salt and pepper to taste.

OPTIONAL: Depending on your crowd, add in 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme, a couple drops of Tabasco as well as blanched broccoli or sauteed mushrooms or browned ground meat.

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2. Meanwhile, make the breadcrumbs: Set a large skillet over medium heat. Add 3/4 cup Panko, 2 Tbs. olive oil, and 1/2 tsp. kosher salt and mix well. Once the breadcrumbs start to sizzle, about 2 minutes, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring, until they brown uniformly, about 10 minutes total. Stir in 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme if you like.

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3. Cook the pasta: Add 1 lb. pasta (choose a small shape like elbows) to the boiling salted water and cook, stirring occasionally, until it becomes tender, about 10 minutes (check the times on the box). Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta well and return it to the pot. Add the cheese sauce to the pasta, set over medium heat, and cook, stirring, until the cheese sauce coats the pasta nicely, 1 to 2 minutes; add a splash of the pasta water if the pasta becomes dry. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve the pasta sprinkled with the Panko crumbs.

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