When I first read that CookieCrumb over at I'm Mad And I Eat and Kevin at Seriously Good teamed up for a Mac-N- Cheese-Off, I knew I wanted to take part in it. Like many people, I adore macaroni and cheese. My mom made it frequently, from scratch, when I was growing up. It was a very rich recipe, using three different cheeses, whole milk, and a white sauce made with lots of butter. We always had pickled beets with it, which cut some of the richness. The dark purple of the beets against the pale macaroni always made me very happy, especially when my younger sister was 2 years old. She would turn her plate upside down on top of her head when she was done eating. The image of beet juice and pasta streaming down her beaming face is one of my favorite memories. Antonia always did things her way. But, as much as I love my mother's recipe, the fat level is too much right now, since we're recovering from stomach flu. Instead, I decided to make a recipe from Martha Stewart Living. It has less fat, but there's still enough to make the dish creamy and comforting. Bob and I only had a taste, but this recipe is a good substitute for my old family favorite.
I was reminded of the the beets my mom served when I used roasted tomato slices to line the bottom of the baking pan and decorate the top. I don't eat fresh tomatoes in the winter, as they're tasteless. But, roasting them with fresh thyme and olive oil improved their flavor. They weren't on par with vine ripened tomatoes, but pretty good nontheless. I placed the slices onto my new Le Creuset brasier, given to me by my friend Nancy. It's an absolute beauty of a pan. Don't use too many of the tomatoes or they will overwhelm the flavor of the mac & cheese.
Lighter Mac-N-Cheese (Martha Stewart Living)
6 small (3-inch) vine-ripened tomatoes, cut into twenty-four 1/4-inch-thick slices
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1-1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, plus sprigs for sprinkling
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
5 slices white sandwich bread, with crust
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound elbow macaroni
2 cups homemade or low-sodium store-bought chicken stock
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne pepper
2 cups low-fat (1 percent) milk
8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated (about 2 1/4 cups)
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1. Preheat oven to 400°. Spread tomatoes in a single layer on 2 rimmed baking sheets. Drizzle each sheet with 1 tablespoon oil; sprinkle each baking sheet with 1/2 teaspoon thyme, and season with salt and pepper. Bake until tomatoes have softened, about 20 minutes. (Leave oven on to bake the mac-n-cheese.)
2. Process bread in a food processor until coarse crumbs form. Melt 1 tablespoon butter with remaining tablespoon oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add breadcrumbs, and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper; set aside.
3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta. Cook pasta until almost al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain, and run under cold water to stop cooking. Transfer to a large bowl; set aside.
4. Whisk 1/2 cup stock into the flour in a medium bowl; set aside. Melt remaining tablespoon butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in nutmeg, cayenne, remaining 1/2 teaspoon thyme, and 1 teaspoon salt. Add milk and remaining 1 1/2 cups stock. Whisk in flour mixture. Bring to a boil, whisking frequently. Reduce to a simmer. Cook 8 minutes, whisking frequently. Add cheeses; cook, stirring, until melted. Pour over macaroni, stirring to combine.
5. Put some tomato slices in bottom of a baking pan and spoon the macaroni mixture into it. Top with tomato slices. (Don't use too many or the flavor will be overwhelmed.) Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and thyme sprigs. Bake until bubbling and golden brown, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately.