It’s only been recently that I have been able to crack open a box of mac and cheese and cook it for my kids. I’ve always had to make it from scratch with soy cheese/soy milk because my daughter was severely allergic to dairy (which she has thankfully outgrown). And somehow when you get used to making it from scratch, it just doesn’t seem that much harder than making it from the box. Sure, it takes a little more time because you have to make the cheese sauce — but just think a minute about that powdered cheese sauce mixture. Think about how one makes a cheese sauce (or cheese) and then reduces it to a fine powder which requires no refrigeration. Really think. I’ll wait.
Confused? Yeah, me too. I’m no food scientist, but even if it is Annie’s Mac and Cheese with Whole Wheat Pasta, you still can’t explain to me how that powdered cheese can provide one with the same nutrients as cheese. And sure, we still make it once in a while and I keep a few boxes in the pantry in case the terror threat level gets jacked up (I have plastic sheeting too) or if we encounter Armageddon (and are lucky enough to still have running water). But, on most days I take the 30 minutes of prep time and use a very novel product … some call it cheese.
My version is made with whole wheat pasta, is thickened with sprouted spelt flour (or whole wheat flour), and uses 2% milk. The only thing I don’t cut back on or substitute is cheese. Because you can do a lot of things to macaroni and cheese, but the one thing you CAN’T do is not use cheese. And I even count soy cheese as real cheese here, because the final product is so darn good and such a great treat for those who can never have mac and cheese (I’d take the homemade soy cheese version over Kraft any day of the week).
This makes a great side dish (as you well know), but it is also a great main course if you add in some cooked vegetables/greens or serve it with a big salad. Certainly you can add some meat if you like — ham, bacon, proscuitto, etc. are a natural fit. It is also very flexible in what type of cheese you use — anything works. And you can do it one of two ways — just toss the pasta with the cheese sauce (a la Kraft) or baked with some breadcrumbs on top. Your choice.
And the coolest part? You will now know how to make both a roux and Bechamel Sauce.
(Allergy note: if you want to make this dairy free, simply use dairy-free margarine or olive oil, soy milk or rice milk, and soy cheese. It works out quite well.)
Whole Wheat Macaroni and Cheese
Pasta and Cheese Sauce:
1 lb. whole wheat pasta
6 T. butter
6 T. sprouted spelt flour (or whole wheat flour)
4 cups of milk (I used 2%)
Nutmeg (freshly grated is the best)
1 t. salt
8 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, freshly grated (a little over 2 cups)
1/2 cup of parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1 T. butter, melted
1 T. olive oil
1/2 t. smoked paprika
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper
1/2 cup of freshly grated cheese (your choice of cheddar or parm, or both)
3/4 cup of panko breadcrumbs
Fresh herbs for garnish, optional
1. Cook pasta until very al dente (it should be slightly undercooked) in salted boiling water. Mine was supposed to cook 10 minutes total, and I cooked it about 7 minutes. When finished, drain and set aside in a bowl or in the pan it was cooked in. (*If you are not going to bake the finished mac and cheese, you should cook your pasta fully in this step.)
2. Meanwhile in a medium saucepan, melt 6 T. of butter and whisk together with 6 T. flour over medium heat. This is a roux. Cook the roux for 2-3 minutes. Add in 1 t. salt and stir.
3. Slowly add the 4 cups of milk, whisking constantly. When all the milk is added, use a spatula to make sure you have all of the bits of roux out of the corners of the pan. This is now called a Bechamel Sauce. Bring the sauce to a boil, whisking frequently. It should have thickened considerably. Reduce heat to low and cook the sauce for about 20 minutes, whisking every once in a while.
4. Stir grated cheeses into Bechamel Sauce and mix until they are completely melted and incorporated. Season with a bit of Cayenne Pepper, Nutmeg (somewhere between a pinch and 1/8 of a teaspoon of both — to your taste), and additional salt and pepper if necessary. Remember that you are seasoning the sauce for an entire pound of pasta, so make sure it’s not bland.
5. Toss cooked pasta with Cheese Sauce and taste to make sure it is well seasoned. Adjust if necessary. You can serve it at this point if you want just a creamy mac and cheese. If you want baked mac and cheese, read on.
6. Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9×13 glass baking dish and pour in the pasta with cheese sauce.
7. Combine breadcrumb topping ingredients in a small bowl. Sprinkle all over top of pasta/cheese sauce and bake for 20 minutes until golden brown on top. When it is done, you can sprinkle it with some fresh herbs (chives, parsley, etc.) if you like.