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Making toddler food less boring
I’ve been making a lot of macaroni and cheese lately–one of the perks of having a toddler in the house.
I don’t have anything against that packaged mac and cheese that comes in the blue box. Its distinctive flavor reminds me of childhood like no homemade mac does, and it played a big part in meeting my nutritional needs during college.
But it turns out, it’s not that hard to make mac and cheese from scratch. If I have to boil water anyway (as most boxed mixes require) I might as well put a pot on the stove to whip up a quick cheese sauce. Butter, flour, cheese and milk are all it takes, and if we don’t have those around the house, there are bigger problems at hand.
My toddler loves macaroni and cheese, but as I’ve been eating it more lately, I’ve realized that despite its rich and satisfying texture, the flavor can get boring really quickly.
In thinking about variations, I found myself wallowing in the archives of cheese-filled Southern classics, and before I knew it I had zeroed in on my other favorite use for a giant block of extra-sharp cheddar: pimiento cheese.
I’m particular about my “puh-MEN-uh” cheese. I don’t think it’s OK to just stir a bunch of shredded cheese together with mayonnaise, spices and peppers and call it pimiento cheese. There must be cream cheese in the mix, and at least some (maybe all) of the cheese shreds must be homogenized with the cream cheese and mayonnaise.
But why not instead melt everything into the cream sauce that envelops baked mac & cheese?
The result of that experiment is the recipe below.
I thought about using crushed Wheat Thins–my favorite cracker to pair with pimiento cheese–instead of bread crumbs with this, but I was afraid they would be too heavy on top of the dish. Panko bread crumbs always provide the right crunch and texture.
I usually use grated onion in my pimiento cheese. I have instead grated garlic into the roux that begins the cheese sauce here. The grating is important, because it imparts smaller garlic particles than mincing, and the smaller the garlic in your dish, the more intense the flavor.
You will want to grate your own cheese for this or any other mac and cheese. I have tried making it with the pre-grated kind, and the Barefoot Contessa is right when she says that stuff doesn’t melt the same. There’s some kind of coating on it that keeps it from melding with your sauce, and you end up with little flecks of cheese instead of a uniform texture.
Besides, grating cheese is good for your biceps.
Oh, and one more thing that’s useful to know–if you go shopping for jarred pimientos at Wegmans, they are kept on the aisle with the Italian food, not with the other jarred peppers. Very confusing.
This is rich stuff. Serve it with something green.
Macaroni and Pimiento Cheese
2 cups dry elbow pasta
3 tablespoons butter
1 to 2 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 oz cream cheese
2 cups grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese, divided
1 cup grated Monterrey Jack cheese (Or mozzarella, or more sharp cheddar, or whatever cheese you prefer. I always put Jack in my cold pimiento cheese.)
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper (Black pepper is fine if that’s what you have.)
1 8 oz. jar pimientos, drained
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1/8 cup (a handful) parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 2-quart baking dish and set aside.
Cook macaroni in boiling water for 5 minutes, until it’s cooked but still al dente. Drain and reserve.
In a medium sauce pan, melt butter. As the butter melts, grate the garlic clove into it with a fine grater, like a Microplane. Sprinkle flour over the melted butter and cook for about 30 seconds, stirring constantly.
Pour milk into butter mixture. Whisk in Dijon mustard. Stir this mixture constantly over medium heat until milk begins to bubble around the edges and mixture thickens. You’re at the right spot when it will coat the back of a spoon and you can draw a line through that coating with your finger.
Turn heat to low and stir in cream cheese, 1 cup of the sharp cheddar and the Monterrey Jack cheese, along with the Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper. Stir until all cheeses are incorporated.
Place drained macaroni back into the pot they cooked in. Pour in cheese sauce and mix. Mix in pimientos, mayonnaise, and remaining 1 cup sharp cheddar.
Pour macaroni mixture into greased baking dish. Top with bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until bubbly and slightly browned.