Wait…wait…wait…don’t start your New Year resolution to eat healthier in 2014 until you try this version of mac & cheese! A few years back my unofficial new year resolution was to find the perfect macaroni and cheese recipe. I didn’t…but not from lack of trying! I made a different recipe on Sunday’s, twice monthly. That’s 2 dozen versions – I got close a couple of times, but my persnickety palate was difficult to please!
What I did learn, was what I did and did not like in each recipe. From type of cheese or pasta to baked or stove top. It was a fun, interesting and sometimes disappointing adventure. That year of education helped me concoct “my perfect mac & cheese”. So for once I was successful in fulfilling my resolution!
My final version is a somewhat healthier version than many I tried. I know, I know…it is a ton of cheese and pasta. But…there is no butter and I do use 1% milk. So there…an extra spoonful won’t go directly to the hips! I promise 😉
***Notes:  Avoid packaged pre-shredded cheese. It does not melt the same as freshly grated cheese.  Choose a pasta that gives the cheese sauce something to “cling” to. My favorite to use is Cavatappi [a corkscrew pasta] which grabs on to the sauce beautifully. The added bonus – it has a hollow center which the cheese will fill.  Toppings or not? I found a topping helps the finished product from drying out. Additionally, our family likes the little bit of crunch it adds.  Many times I’ll prepare this as a make ahead dish for gatherings. I simply refrigerate the un-baked dish, remove about 1-1 1/2 hours before needed, allow to come to room temperature, then bake as directed.
Nancy’s Mac and Cheese
1 pound pasta
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese
8 ounces pepper jack cheese
8 ounces applewood smoked white cheddar cheese
8 ounces Gouda cheese
3½ cups 1% milk
seasoned to taste with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes
1 cup Cheez-its, crushed
½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
•Prepare 9×13 baking dish [approximate size] with cooking spray, set aside. Heat oven to 400°F.
•Grate the cheeses. I use a box-style grater – large holes. Watch those fingers!
 Heat a large pot of salted water to boiling over high heat. Cook pasta according to package directions minus 2 minutes [the pasta will continue cooking in oven]. Drain, reserving 1 cup of pasta water. Return pasta to pot [this will be your “mixing bowl”] and set aside.
 Heat the milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Season to your liking with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Warm the milk completely through. Do not allow it to boil.
•Begin to add the cheese to the hot milk, about 1 cup at a time. Stir the mixture, allowing the cheese to melt thoroughly. As each cupful melts, add another. You’ll end up with a slightly liquid form pot of cheesy yumminess.
•Pour the cheese mixture over the cooked pasta and stir well. Make sure all of the pasta is well coated. If your mixture appears too thick, add the reserved pasta water 1 ounce at a time. The cheese and pasta mixture should appear “soupy”.
•Carefully pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish. Level it so the pasta is evenly distributed.
•Place the Cheez-its and the grated Parmesan cheese in a plastic bag. Crush with your hands or a rolling pin, incorporating the two together as you do. Sprinkle evenly over the top of the macaroni and cheese.
•Bake in the pre-heated oven until bubbly and slightly browned on top, about 30 minutes. Allow to rest 5-10 minutes before digging in.
A final note: Happy New Year to all! I wish I had been able to be more active with this blog during the holidays…however, life got in the way. Things are now settling down and now I’m back on track. And I promise…healthier posts are on the horizon! In the meantime, enjoy!