Marvelous Macaroni: Warm Up Your Winter with Comfort Foods

macncheese

by Christine van Bloem

Come the winter months, most families spend their time wondering if it will snow, how much it will snow, and if there's any chance that school will be canceled. If you're like me, every once and a while you love being snowbound, even if only for a day, because it makes everything slow down.

I find that it's also a time when all the comfort foods of childhood make a grand reappearance. There's nothing like wearing a fat, cozy sweater and hanging with the family playing backgammon and endless rounds of Mario Kart, while noshing on foods that warm you the whole way through. Salads are great, but when the temperatures dip below freezing, you're going to need something toasty, creamy, and carby.

And so I present the ultimate comfort food dish, full of warmth, love, and a few million calories: Baked Macaroni & Cheese (with a few fancy French techniques thrown in for good measure).

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

1 pound dry Macaroni

2 teaspoons Salt

4 cups Milk (2% or whole milk preferred)

½ medium onion, NOT diced or minced or in anyway cut apart

1 Bay Leaf

2 whole Cloves

3 tablespoons Butter, unsalted

¼ cup Flour

4 cups Cheese, divided use (a combination of Cheddar, Mexican 4-Cheese Blend, & a little Parmesan works well, but use what you have—just NOT mozzarella because it's too stringy)

4 ounces Cream Cheese

½ to 1 teaspoon Salt (again)

½ teaspoon freshly ground Black Pepper

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

Spray a 9"x13" baking dish with cooking spray. Set aside.

Place a large pot of water on the stove over high heat and bring to a boil. Once the water begins to boil, add 2 teaspoons of salt. Add the macaroni; cook for one minute less than indicated on the package directions. Drain (do not rinse) and place in the prepared baking dish. The pasta should be slightly underdone.

While the macaroni cooks, take the one-half onion and attach the bay leaf to the cut side of the onion, using the two cloves as if they were tacks. (You've just made something called onion cloute. It's very French and will add a lot of flavor to your dish.) Pour the cold milk into a medium saucepan, and then add the onion to the milk. Bring the milk just to a simmer, and then turn off the heat. This will impart the flavor of the onion into the milk without having to sauté the onion or work around chunks in the finished dish.

Melt the butter into a large saucepan or skillet. Once the butter has melted, whisk in the flour until a smooth paste forms. (This is called a roux and it will help thicken your sauce and keep the whole thing from breaking apart into greasy yukiness.) Remove the onion from the milk and discard. Slowly, one ladle at a time, add the milk to the roux, whisking until smooth after each addition. This will ensure a smooth, finished sauce without those pesky flour lumps.

Reserve ½ cup of the cheese mixture to the side for topping the finished dish. Add the remaining 3½ cups cheese and 4 ounces cream cheese into the sauce, whisking until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour cheese sauce over macaroni in baking dish, and then stir well to combine. Top with remaining ½ cup cheese. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until bubbly.

Christine van Bloem is owner and instructor extraordinaire at The Kitchen Studio Cooking School in Frederick.

Be sure to check out Christine's food blog Breaking Eggs every Monday for more food recipes.

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