When my sister and I were going over our Thanksgiving menu, she mentioned that there had been a request for Baked Macaroni and Cheese. For Thanksgiving?? No way!! I put my foot down. On top of what she was already doing, she had a few different breads in the works, etc., and almost every time these skinny young people with functioning metabolisms come to her house, she makes them Mac and Cheese, so there was no need to have it on a holiday too. Then the word minis came out of her mouth. Apparently, it was suggested that maybe a mini version might be in order. Hmmmm? We willllll be doing apps earlier in the day. OK, you do what you're already planning, I'll do what I'm already planning, and if I have time, I'll throw together a Mac and Cheese.
Somewhere along the line, she had picked up a few vintage aluminum ice cube trays and started using them for baking quick breads and that sort of thing - genius! They make the perfect sized slices for a tea or a holiday breakfast table. She recently scored another set of trays for me, but only one had the insert. I decided to use those to make bite-sized versions of our Mac and Cheese. If you are making this recipe but don't plan to make minis, just butter a regular casserole dish and bake it in that. The time and temp still worked out the same.
The recipe our family grew up with calls for American cheese. Before you turn your nose up at that, we're just talking a few slices here. It really adds to the creaminess of the cheese sauce. I'll sometimes throw in some cheddar or whatever else I have on hand, but the base is Muenster cheese. Several years back, I threw in some Pepper Jack, and we loved that so much, we've been doing it ever since. The problem is that sometimes you don't even notice it, so we'll also throw in some diced jalapeno on occasion - sometimes canned, sometimes fresh. If you don't like Pepper Jack, swap that out with a block of cheddar. For the topping, if you don't have bread crumbs on hand, you can crush some Ritz crackers or maybe some Goldfish or Cheez-Its. Use your imagination and just play around with different things.
1 lb elbow macaroni (medium)
4 T butter
4 T flour
2 1/2 c milk
4 slices American cheese
+/- 1 lb Muenster cheese
8 oz Pepper Jack cheese
Minced jalapeno (optional)
Dry seasoned bread crumbs
Paprika (smoked is nice)
Bring a pot of water up to a boil and season with some salt, then drop in your pasta to boil to al dente.
In a separate pot, over medium heat, whisk together the butter and flour to create a blonde roux, then add the milk. Once the milk is hot, begin adding the cheese. I always start with the American, breaking the slices into pieces and letting them melt down before continuing with the Muenster and whatever other cheese I'm using. Oh, when it comes to the Muenster, I always buy a 1 lb block and then chop off a strip to nibble on, so I don't actually use the whole pound. I also trim off the orange rind, but that's not really necessary. Be sure to keep whisking or stirring so the bottom doesn't stick and burn.
When your pasta is done, drain off the water and toss the pasta with a chunk of butter and some grated Parmesan. If you're making a full-sized casserole, you can do that right in the buttered casserole dish to make clean-up a little easier. If you're afraid you'll slosh over the sides, you can throw it back in the pasta pot.
When all the cheese has melted, season with some black pepper and let it come to a bubble and thicken a bit, then remove from heat.
Pour about half of the cheese mixture over the pasta and really stir it well to make sure the sauce fills in those elbows. Then continue adding sauce until you're just about to the top. You want to make sure some elbows are peeking out over the cheese so you don't end up with a flat layer of cheese at the top. Sprinkle your crumbs and some additional Parmesan over the whole dish, then a little paprika, and dot with bits of butter here and there.
If you have any extra cheese sauce, you can use it over some veggies or even over a baked potato. No need to waste it.
Bake at 325° for 1' until golden and bubbly.
For whatever reason, probably an offshoot to childhood again, I usually serve this up with a ham steak, a side of peas and a can of Del Monte peach halves.
For the minis, I sprayed the trays and lined them with some additional crumbs in hopes of making it easier to release them from the tray. Kinda like flouring a cake pan. I didn't have any jalapenos, so I added some crushed red pepper to the sauce. I filled both trays, then pressed the insert into one of them. I figured that would be easier than filling all those little slots separately. As it turned out, it worked out better using the tray without the inserts - it had cleaner edges when I sliced it later. On one tray, I used the traditional crumbs and paprika, but since I had a container of Chipotle Panko crumbs, I used that on the other.
|Cube or shred the cheese|
|Whisk over medium ...|
|Add the milk until hot|
|... to create a blonde roux|
|Continue with remaining cheese|
|Add the cheese, American first|
|Season with black pepper|
|Allow to bubble and thicken|
|Drain and toss with butter/parm|
|Stir in half the sauce|
|Use any extra on veggies|
|Continue just to the top|
|Fill your buttered tray and add toppings|
|Bake until bubbly...|
|... and golden|
|Yes please! :)|