I've been craving baked mac and cheese so consistently that I actually made it for two different dinners, with only the slightest of variation. That's right: two instances of awesome!
Mac and cheese bake
Instance 1: all dairy all the time
Instance 2: with greens, tomatoes, and garlic
For both instances:
cheese of choice
salt, pepper, mustard powder, paprika
breadcrumbs (i.e. a hunk of stale, stale bread and a grater)
a whisk and whiskable (i.e. not nonstick) pan
a sufficient baking dish
For instance 2 only:
greens (chard, spinach, kale, even green cabbage)
These two instances are so similar that I'm just writing one recipe with an addendum paragraph. Basic rundown: we're going to make a cream sauce, cook pasta, cook vegetables for instance 2, combine everything, and bake the resulting business until you can stand it no longer.
Preheat the oven to 350F about halfway through the sauce-making process, ok?
Start the cream sauce by making a roux. In your pan, melt a big chunk of butter. Add an equal amount of flour and whisk it together as it bubbles down. I never, ever measure my flour or butter, as I am well on my way to becoming a level seven grandma, but something in the neighborhood of two tablespoons of each should work. Cook together, whisking frequently, for three or four minutes. This cooking time ensures that your finished product will taste like cream sauce, not raw flour. Good?
Next, add your milk. Probably something in the neighborhood of a cup and a half of milk is plenty. Season with a little paprika and mustard powder, whisk it all up, and then continue cooking (and whisking) until your sauce starts to thicken. How long will this take? It depends on the fat content of your milk. Skim will take much longer than whole milk, which will take much longer than cream. My 2% sauce probably took about twenty minutes.
When it's thickened sufficiently (i.e. coats the back of a spoon, looks satiny, etc.), gradually whisk in a bunch of shredded cheese. You can use whatever kind sounds right. (I totally used junky store cheddar, but parmesan etc is clearly better.) As you add the cheese, the sauce will get even creamier. Once everything is amalgamated, the cream sauce is largely done; pepper it heavily and salt it a little. You can keep it on low heat, whisking intermittently, if you need to hold it a little longer.
Instance 2 only: At the same time, heat up a saute pan and soften a handful of chopped garlic in olive oil. Add some chopped/pureed/whatever tomatoes, some basil and oregano, and a big pinch of salt, and let them cook down together into a little second sauce. Also, wash and chop up your greens. They can stay raw for the time being.
While the sauce is finishing up, cook and drain your pasta. Try to time it so it'll be done when your sauce is done. I usually put a pan of water on at the very beginning of cooking, cover it, and turn it off when it boils; this way, once I have some idea when the cream sauce will be done, I can just turn on the heat and bring the business to a cookable heat level right away.
OK! When all the components are done, combine them, preferably in a pot you've already been using. The pasta pot is a good choice. Taste and correct seasonings, and then pour the resulting mass of excellence into a casserole dish. Spread a layer of breadcrumbs over the top and put the whole business in the oven.
Now you have to WAIT. AUGH.
When the whole mass is crispy and bubbling and golden brown on top, you are done. A half hour or so should do it. Check out that crust:
Now you must EAT IT as fast as possible.
Instance 2 was a complete and excellent vegetable-laden meal. However, since my first iteration was just about 100% dairy and grain, I needed some veg to go with it. John was very nice and made me some brussels sprouts sauteed with bacon. These are super easy and an ideal match. The cooked greens really make the whole business seem like a perfect southern dinner. If you don't eat bacon, you could saute your sprouts with olive oil and garlic, with maybe a little hot pepper thrown in.
Brussels sprouts with bacon
I'd use half a slice of bacon per serving here, and you could get away with less.
Chop your bacon into small squares. Throw the pieces into a pan over medium heat and let them render.
While the bacon cooks, trim your sprouts and slice them up. You want all the layers to start to fall apart before you even get them over the heat. This means the sprouts will cook quickly and produce lots of delicious crispy bits.
When your bacon had given up nearly all its fat (or it's quite close to whatever state you like your bacon; I can't do the uncooked fat, you guys, that's just gross), throw the sprouts into the pan. Salt sparingly, keeping in mind that the bacon was cured/etc and will have some saltiness of its own to contribute.
Mix everything up and let it sit for a few minutes. This will let the sprouts start to brown. While you're waiting, you can crush some peppercorns for the final seasoning. Or you can stand around anxiously watching the pan and trying not to stir. Your call.
After a few minutes, mix it up and let the other side of the sprouts brown. Pepper the finished business, put it on a plate, and eat it with your massive dairy explosion.
PS: I'll talk about holidays later, ok you guys? Ok!