Given that I have diabetes, macaroni and cheese isn’t on my list of dishes to make. I love it–who doesn’t–but like pizza it’s the poster dish for all I shouldn’t eat. But when my neighbors decided to have a potluck alley party I was in need of a dish that both adults and kids would love. What better than mac ‘n cheese?

Because I’m not an old hand with a favorite dish, I consulted various people in my circle and was told that a chef friend of mine had made a stunning one recently. I texted her, asking what her key ingredients were. Her answer? Heavy whipping cream, sharp white cheddar and manchego cheese. Oh, and bacon.

I was with her up till the bacon. I love bacon but I felt it was just one ingredient too many for what I wanted to do, especially if kids were going to eat it. After all, they were likely fans of the blue box. I went shopping for ingredients and found that heavy whipping cream–at least at Trader Joe’s–was ridiculously expensive. Since most people use milk for mac ‘n cheese, I compromised with half and half.

Then there was the actual how-to. I’m curious, chefs, about how you create or adapt a recipe for a favorite dish about which people have so many strong opinions. Do you turn to the dish you grew up with and modernize it via technique or better ingredients? (For instance, my grandmother made beautiful pies and taught me how to make them–but as an adult I rejected her margarine in favor of butter. No doubt margarine was cheaper and made more sense for her Depression mentality, but today I want the real deal.) If  you live in another region from where you grew up, do you look at the ingredients in a traditional recipe and adjust it for your new locale to be able to incorporate its fresh, local ingredients? Do you adjust for dietary restrictions? How about techniques that make the process go faster? Say, instead of mashing soft cooked ingredients through a chinois to create a sauce, just pureeing it all in a blender? Please write and let us know your strategy for recipe creation!

But back to the macaroni and cheese. You’d be surprised at how many different techniques there are for making it. Yes, I know, your mom or grandma’s is the best, but, whoa, there are a lot of contenders out there. After spending perhaps too much time looking through cookbooks and online to get a better sense of what’s involved I was drawn to two approaches by two big names: Alton Brown and Martha Stewart. By then it was easy enough to sort out the basics and create my own version using the best of what I found. A little less cooking of the pasta here, the spice combo there, tempering eggs, adding a panko topping.

Well, it all came together in a bubbling, rich, creamy casserole with a crusty top and lots of flavor. And, friends, I had very little left over to take home. I’ll remember it fondly when I munch on a green salad.

Macaroni and Cheese

Serves 12 to 16

Ingredients

1 pound elbow macaroni

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter

6 cups half and half

½ cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons kosher salt

¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 cup yellow onion, finely diced

1 bay leaf

2 large eggs, beaten

12 ounces sharp white cheddar, shredded

12 ounces manchego cheese, shredded

Topping

3 tablespoons butter

1 cup panko bread crumbs

Instructions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish and set aside.

Fill a large pot with salted water and bring to a boil. Add pasta and cook 2 to 3 minutes less than the package directions. (The pasta will finish cooking while it bakes.) Transfer to a colander, rinse under cold water, and drain well. Set aside while making the sauce.

While the pasta is cooking, in another pot, melt the butter. When it bubbles, whisk in the flour and stir for 1 minute. Stir in half and half, salt, nutmeg, ground pepper, cayenne pepper, onion, and bay leaf. Temper in the eggs by stirring in a little of the milk mixture to the eggs and then adding that mixture to the sauce. Slowly stir in ¾ of the cheese. Whisk constantly until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick. Remove from heat and remove bay leaves.

Stir the macaroni into the sauce. Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish. Mix together the remaining cheeses and sprinkle evenly over the mixture.

Melt the 3 tablespoons of butter for the topping in a sauté pan and add the panko crumbs. Stir until coated. Top the cheese-covered macaroni with the bread crumbs.

Bake for 45 minutes uncovered or until brown on top. Remove from oven and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

What was your most successful reinvention of a favorite recipe? How did you go about changing it up?

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