Not Your Mother’s Baked Mac and Cheese – My Mother’s!

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(Baked macaroni and cheese with a wedge of freshly baked olive bread, recipes in post)

When The Parent’s first met The Boyfriend, this was the meal they made. I already knew it to be a crowd pleaser and one of my own favorites, but I still wondered whether or not it would impress. Well, it did – The Boyfriend raved for days afterwards, and I made a mental note of it.
Multiple times since then I’ve planned to make this as a surprise for him, but every time my intentions have been thwarted by him conveniently choosing to eat mac and cheese the day before. But not this time! Ha!

I have to admit that, in general, I tend to prefer stove-top macaroni and cheese, whether it be homemade or from a box (yeah, you heard it. Mac and cheese is good stuff no matter how you make it, and there is just no way to replicate that strange, powdered-cheese taste!). However, The Mom has always made what I consider to be the best baked macaroni around – no, it isn’t anything fancy, like gruyere cheese and caramelized onions (which I do have a recipe for, and is delicious) – it’s just good, cheesy, wonderfulness that somehow fails to come through in many other baked recipes.

One of my favorite parts, and arguably the best part of any baked macaroni, is the crusty top. While you could just crank up the broiler for the last few minutes of baking to bubble the cheese, The Mom always likes to crush up some thin-cut potato chips and sprinkle them generously over the top. In the last stretch of cooking, these turn golden brown and become a wonderful crunchy contrast to the rest of the gooey goodness.

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When I’m making macaroni on the stove I usually like to add some frozen peas, or corn – which, if you’ve never tried it, is a must. (Other macaroni tips include: using a dollop of yogurt instead of the milk called for to make a creamier cheese sauce with a bit of tang. Stay tuned, I’m here all week).
In the same spirit as my macaroni and peas (or corn), The Boyfriend usually adds a handful of sliced green olives to his. While I wasn’t interested in tinkering with The Mom’s already amazing recipe, I did want to keep that element as part of the meal, and decided the best way to do it was to bake a couple rustic loaves of olive bread to go with.

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Mmm, olive bread…

In keeping with the tradition of the recipe, I used Black Diamond aged sharp white cheddar cheese – this stuff is good on its own, but somehow great in this dish. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but it just had to be in there.
While that was my primary cheese, I did decide to amp things up a little by adding a touch of one of my own favorites: Kerry Gold. I’ve been a fan of their Irish butter for a long time, which is softer and sweeter than most, but have only recently discovered the wonders of their cheeses. They make a few different cheddars of varying age, and although I haven’t tried very many of their assortment I’ve found that I like their Dubliner and Killaree quite a lot. I’m not generally a huge cheese fanatic, but I’m definitely excited to try their other cheeses, like their Whiskey Cheddar and their Red Leicester
I should really be getting paid for this.

In making this mac and cheese, or any mac and cheese, I can only suggest you use a cheese you personally enjoy. Yes, there are cheeses with exceptional meltability or other favorable qualities, but most important is that it suits your pallet. All I can say is that I recommend a sharp white cheddar for this particular bake.

Now, let’s Mac it up:

The Mother’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese
(Loosely adapted from Betty Crocker)
Makes 4 hefty servings. Maybe 8 normal person servings, but we don’t like them.

1 box elbow macaroni
1 lb. cheddar cheese (we always use sharp, white)
1 small onion, or 1/2 large, chopped fine
4 TBSP butter
4 TBSP flour
1 cup milk
1/4 tsp. salt (plus lots for seasoning the pasta water)
1/4 tsp. heaping dry mustard powder
Fresh cracked pepper to taste
3/4-1 cup crushed potato chips (optional, but recommended)

Method:

Preheat oven to 375f

In a large pot, bring water to a boil and add a handful of sea salt. Add noodles, and cook until just barely al-dente. Remember, they’ll finish cooking in the oven.
Drain noodles and set them aside.
Dry out the pot and return it to low heat. Add the butter and let it start melting, then add the flour, 1/4 tsp. salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Stir for about a minute, letting it bubble and froth, then add the milk. Increase heat to bring the milk to a boil, and stir for one minute to thicken. Reduce heat back to low.
Stirring constantly, add in the mustard powder and the cheese, one handful at a time, until completely melted and smooth. This will take a few minutes, but have faith – all the lumps will disappear.
Mix in the noodles and chopped onion, and stir to coat everything evenly. Pour macaroni into a lidded casserole dish and bake, lid on, for 30 minutes.
After a half hour of baking, remove the lid and sprinkle crushed potato chips evenly over the top. Continue to bake for 10-15 minutes, or until chips are golden brown. (If not using chips, turn on broiler and bake 5-10 minutes or until bubbly and brown on top).
Remove from oven and let stand 10-15 minutes before digging in.

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(Waiting… )

It sounds like a lot of food – an entire casserole dish, a whole box of noodles, a whole pound of cheese – but the recipe I’m giving you is only a half batch of what The Mom normally makes. Any leftovers are devoured the next morning with a few shakes of hot sauce. (Macaroni tip #2: is awesome with hot sauce).

This was delicious, as always, but somehow not quite as good as when The Mother makes it. Why? Because The Mother didn’t make it. Then again, I suppose nothing is ever quite as good as when your parents make it for you. It’s like they add fairy dust, or some kind of ju-ju magic to everything they cook. A mystery I have yet to solve.

Next up is the olive bread.

Rustic No-Knead Olive Loaf
(Adapted from Artisan Braed in Five Minutes a Day)
Makes for small, or two regular sized loaves

3 cups warm water (not hotter than 115f.)
1 1/2 TBSP instant yeast (or about two packets)
1 1/2 TBSP salt
1 cup whole wheat flour
5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
cornmeal, or more flour, for dusting
1-2 cups olives, pitted and chopped – I used plain green, but use what you like (the recipe calls for 1 cup, but I plan to double that next time)

1 cup water, for baking

for brushing the loaves:
1/2 tsp. cornstarch
1/2 cup water

Method:

In a large bowl, sprinkle yeast over warm water. Let sit a few minutes while you gather the rest of the ingredients.
In a separate large bowl, combine flours and salt.
Add flour mixture to the yeast, and stir until just about all dryness is gone – it may seem too dry, but that’s okay. You want it to look like a big shaggy mess.
Before letting the dough rest, take a moment to think about the size of the bowl it’s in – the dough will double in size, so if your bowl isn’t big enough to accomodate that, split the ball in half into another big bowl.
Cover bowl(s) loosely with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for about 2 hours – the dough will expand significantly, and then fall back some.
At this point you can use the dough, or refrigerate it in a lidded container for up to two weeks.

When you’re ready to bake, divide the dough into either two large loaves or four small ones.
Split up the olives and knead the an equal portion into each loaf. I suggest handling the olives before kneading, so that the oils will keep the dough from sticking to your hands. Unfortunately, those same oils will keep the dough from sticking to the olives, which makes this step a little tricky. Just keep kneading as best you can, pressing the olives into the dough until they’re fairly well distributed.
(I swear, I thought I was putting so  many olives into this bread using the amount originaly called for, but then the dough expanded in the oven and it’s like there’s hardly anything there. Will definitely double the olives next time.)
Once the olives are kneaded in, shape the dough into a ball or oblong shape. Thoroughly dust some sheets of parchment paper with flour or cornmeal – one sheet of parchment per loaf. Gently set the loaves onto the prepared parchment, and let rest for 1 hour, or until doubled in size.

Put a baking stone or cookie sheet onto the center rack of the oven, and on the rack below it place an empty baking dish. Preheat oven to 450f.

To make the cornstarch wash, whisk cornstarch with a small amount of water until smooth, then add in the rest of the 1/2 cup. Warm in the microwave for half a minute to a minute.
Once the oven is up to temp., brush the tops of the loaves with the cornstarch wash. Using a very sharp knife, make a slice or two in the top of each loaf in whatever patern you want.
Lift loaves individually by the edges of the parchment paper, and carefully carry them to the open oven. Slide the loaf from the parchment directly onto the hot stone or baking sheet.
Quickly pour one cup of water into the pan on the lower rack, careful of the steam, and close the oven door. Reduce heat to 400f. and bake for 30-40 minutes and the crust is firm and hollow sounding when tapped.
Remove from oven and let sit at least 30 minutes before slicing.

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Surprise! Mac and cheese and olive bread! The Boyfriend was pleased, and I was victorious at last. *Grins*

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