Family-Style Mac and Cheese

You guys, this is the best mac and cheese EVER.
This recipe comes from Ina Garden, out of her Barefoot Contessa Family Style cookbook, and while I've tried handfuls of other homemade mac and cheese recipes over the years, this one remains superior over all others. (Much like the beloved Contessa herself.)

I absolutely adore Ina Garten. She creates gorgeous and flavorful dishes and is a culinary smartypants. I've read all of her cookbooks and have learned so much about food and cooking technique from her. 
And the other thing I love about her is how over-the-top and unrelatable her life is.
She never requires less than the highest quality of ingredients for her extravagant meals and swanky dinner parties in the Hamptons, and has the most endearing aloofness that the rest of us are all living with the exact same style and comforts. She's almost like a really mellow Lucille Bluth ("How much could a frozen banana cost? Ten dollars?!")

I can't get enough of it, you guys.

Having said that, even though I am her disciple who worships at her feet, I still have to pair her recipes with basic common sense, knowing that unlike her I don't have unlimited time and money and a housekeeping staff, and instead what I do have is CHILDREN.
So I've adapted this recipe just a tiny bit, but only to make it a less expensive and high maintenance. You're welcome.

But feel free to use my alterations or just her exact recipe if you'd like. Either way, you will love this heavenly dish and so will everyone you're feeding it to.

One of the main ways I tweeked Ina's recipe is the cheese.
She calls for 2 cups of sharp cheddar and 4 cups of gruyere.
Instead of gruyere, which can be less common in grocery stores and a little pricier, I use swiss cheese and the swap the amounts of white and yellow cheeses.
So I use 4 cups sharp cheddar and 2 cups of swiss, both freshly grated, because even though I believe there are plenty of good uses for pre-shredded cheese, I wouldn't use it in this because the starch that it comes covered in might make the sauce gluey. But you know, do whatever you want. Follow your heart!
What I've also done in the past is substituted 1 or 2 cups of the cheddar for a smoked cheese, like smoked gouda. And oh boy, it is soooo good. 
(Just be careful overdoing it with smoked cheeses, some of them can be really heavy.)
Check out your local deli or Trader Joe's for fun cheeses to use in this. 
The world is your cheese oyster!

But not literally, because that would be gross. 
Ok, let's get started!

1.) Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

2.) Boil water, cook your pasta, and drain it. 

3.) Heat up a quart of milk, either in a saucepan or in a glass dish in the microwave. 
Get it hot, but not boiling.

4.) In a large pot, melt 6 Tablespoons of butter over medium heat.

(Make sure it's good butter.)

(Just kidding.)

5.) Add 1/2 cup flour and whisk, whisk, whisk.

6.) Let your roux ("ROO", as in Kanga) cook over medium-low heat for 2 minutes, whisking frequently.
I've messed up rouxs before by not giving the flour and butter enough time to fall in love and get married (you know..the full TWO MINUTES IT TAKES) and they just ended up angry and fighting, so be patient with it.

Or you will ROUX THE DAY you ruined your roux!

(I'll stop now.)

7.) Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly as you pour.

If you haven't worked out your dominant bicep recently, you are in for a treat!
Expect your arm to look gorgeously chiseled tomorrow. (But just the one.)

8.) Let your pretty cream sauce ("Bechamel"!) cook for another minute, while you whisk it until its thickened and smooth.

9.) Take it off the heat, and add your magnificent cheeses.
I usually do this in one cup increments, and stir in between so that they will melt well and clump together less.

10.) Add 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon(ish) freshly ground pepper, and 1/2 Tablespoon kosher salt (This is not a drill.) 

Ok, can we talk about the salt for a second though?
First of all, always taste your cheese sauce before adding the salt, especially depending on how adventurous you got with the cheeses you picked. (For instance, you'll need less salt with extra-sharp or smoked cheeses.)
Ina calls for 1 full Tablespoon of kosher salt (Whoa, Ina. Calm down.), but even though I use kosher salt as well and am a sodium fiend, I found this to be too much with the combinations of cheeses I use.
Secondly, it crucially depends on what kind of salt you're using. 
Theres an important difference in kosher salt vs. table salt.
Kosher salt is larger, lighter, and flakier, whereas regular table salt is small and fine, meaning you can't just interchange the same measurement of them, because their weight will be different.

So basically if you read Ina's recipe and added a whole tablespoon of table salt instead, your mac and cheese would taste like the Dead Sea. No bueno.

So bottom line, if you're using kosher salt, I would start with a 1/2 tablespoon.
If you're using table salt, start with 1 teaspoon.

Go from there and let me know how it pans out. Godspeed.

11.) Add your cooked pasta, mix it well, and then pour it all into a greased baking dish.
It'll seem a little soupy, but don't panic, it'll thicken in the oven.

12.) Slice up 4 to 6 tomatoes, depending on the size, in 1/4 inch slices.
Arrange them on top of the mac and cheese.

This is the other little adjustment I made to Ina's recipe.
She was like "All you need to do now is plant a field of wheat, harvest it, grind it into flour, bake your own bread, slice it up, toast it in the oven, then pulse it in the food processor, and voila! You have fresh bread crumbs! HOW EASY IS THAT?!"

*sigh* OK, Ina... ok.
BUT say you wanted to finish cooking dinner before, I don't know, the end of this calendar year, go ahead and BUY THE FLIPPING BREAD CRUMBS.

13.) Melt two tablespoons of butter and add 1.5 cups panko bread crumbs.

14.) Sprinkle the bread crumbs on top and stick this bad boy in the oven for 30-35 minutes, until the top is golden and the sauce is bubbly.

Ugh. What a beauty.

The way the cheesy sauce thickens around the pasta and the buttery panko that adds a subtle crunch make every bite of this divine.
The tomatoes give it a little punch of tangy flavor and of course just make it more colorful and glorious.

Now, my baking dish was a little deeper rather than wide, so I probably could have used a little less bread crumbs, but if you use a standard 13x9 baking pan, it should be perfect.
Also, I probably could have actually checked it when the oven timer went off instead of getting distracted for a few more minutes, but win some you lose some.

Have I mentioned yet that I love this mac and cheese?
Because I do!

It's so versatile in the sense that you can make it as a side dish (great to bring to a party or BBQ) and serve it along side chicken, bratwursts, steak, you name it.
Or you can just serve it as the main event next to a salad.
(Psst! Or just grab a fork and snuggle with it on the couch!)

I've also added bacon to the cheese sauce and you should too if you'd like to become EVERYONE'S HERO.

Have I talked you into it yet? Will you please make this soon?
Ok, good. Enjoy!

Family-Style Mac and Cheese
slightly adapted from Barefoot Contessa

1 pound large macaroni or penne pasta
8 Tablespoons (1 stick) butter, divided
1/2 cup flour
4 cups (1 quart) milk
4 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 cups grated swiss cheese
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 Tablespoon kosher salt or 1 teaspoon table salt
4-6 tomatoes, sliced
1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs

-Preheat oven to 375 degrees
-Cook pasta in pot of boiling water, according to package directions; Drain.
-Meanwhile, heat milk in a saucepan or the microwave, getting it hot but not boiling.
-Over medium heat, melt 6 Tablespoons butter in large pot and add flour, stirring occasionally with whisk and cooking for 2 minutes.
-While whisking, gradually add the hot milk and let cook for another 1 minutes, until smooth and thick.
-Remove from heat and add the cheeses (stirring while adding), pepper, salt, and nutmeg.
-Add cooked pasta and mix well
-Pour into a 3-quart baking dish
-Arrange sliced tomatoes on top
-Melt 2 tablespoons of butter, mix in the bread crumbs, and sprinkle them on top.
-Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until golden on top and the sauce bubbles.


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