As a kid I found macaroni & cheese to be too bland. I could get through a serving if I had enough pickles. Apparently, though, I was a rarity. Macaroni & Cheese was part of pretty much any Children’s section on a menu, and presented frequently at Potlucks for “the kids”. I watched in horror as other children slathered it in ketchup and gobbled it up. Then there was the boxed version, Kraft Dinner. My older brother and sister would share a box upon returning home from school some days. I would go to my room.
It wasn’t until I had children of my own, that I realized why kids are served Mac & Cheese, a protein-laden pasta dish that would fill them up. Texture is important to children when eating, and it has a very consistent texture, so doesn’t get picked apart.
However, my palate still wasn’t buying it! So I started to play around. Typically when I make a simple white sauce, I add bay leaves to the heated milk, and nutmeg to the finished sauce. By adding a pinch of cayenne, it gave it a bit more zest.
I had always used aged cheddar, but added in some Parmesan and Gruyère, which definitely upped the flavour.
It wasn’t until reading Martha Stewart’s Favorite Comfort Food in the late 90’s that I found the one missing element that would raise my concoction to just what I was looking for, by adding a topping of buttered fresh bread crumbs.
This mixture of zest, cheeses & crumb elevates the lowly macaroni & cheese of my childhood, to something I am proud to serve, and even enjoy myself.
12 servings using a 3-quart baking dish
Bread Crumb Topping:
3 large pieces of sourdough bread – if you don’t have sourdough on hand, use some other artisanal white bread – you may need more slices
2 T melted butter
6 oz grated aged cheddar
½ c grated Parmesan (use the dry, ground type – it stops the other cheeses from clumping)
2 oz grated Gruyère
6 c milk
2 bay leaves
½ c butter
½ c flour
2 t salt
½ t nutmeg
¼ t cayenne
12 oz grated aged cheddar
6 oz grated Gruyère
Tear the fresh bread slices (crusts removed) into small pieces ½” – 1”
You’ll need about 3 cups of lightly packed torn “crumb”
Toss gently with your hands, until all the crumbs are lightly buttered.
In another medium bowl, mix 6 oz grated aged cheddar with ½ c Parmesan and 2 oz grated Gruyère.
Preheat the oven to 375°
In a deep saucepan, combine the milk with the bay leaves.
Heat until the milk is at a bare simmer. Turn off the heat and let the bay leaves infuse the milk.
In a large pot, heat 4 litres of water to a boil.
In a deep skillet, over medium heat, melt the ½ c of butter.
Remove the bay leaves from the milk.
Once all of the milk has been added, continue cooking until the mixture is uniform and has thickened somewhat.
Add in the grated cheddar & Gruyère.
Add the macaroni to the boiling water.
Let cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep the macaroni pieces separate.
The macaroni will be a little undercooked, as it will finish cooking in the cheese sauce.
Drain the macaroni. Put back into its cooking pot.
Lightly grease a 3 quart baking dish – with at least 2½ ” deep sides.
Let rest for about 15 minutes once out of the oven.
1. Once made but not baked, the macaroni & cheese can sit for up to an hour before baking.
2. Divide between two 2-quart dishes (be sure that one you’re using to freeze is freezer to oven proof – foil always works). Bake one and freeze the other. Simply cover with tin foil & freeze. To cook from frozen, bake covered in the center of a 350° degree oven for 1½ hours, remove the foil, and continue cooking for another 15 minutes until the crumbs are golden brown and the cheese sauce is bubbling throughout. Do a quick temperature check in the center, it should be 80°C / 176°F.