Baked Mac ‘n Cheese

Things I’m currently obsessed with: 1) mint green nail polish; 2) whimsical things in the shape of owls; 3) macaroni ‘n cheese.

Let’s talk about number 3.  I’ve had mac ‘n cheese on the brain for, oh, the last month or so.  It all started with a serendipitous trip to Max Brenner in early June.  What began as an innocent outing where the end goal was dessert (the euphoria peanut butter chocolate fudge sundae, if you’re curious, and no, we could not finish it) led to a monstrous, all-consuming obsession with mac ‘n cheese.  Now, I’ve always been a mac ‘n cheese lover.  I’ll even shovel down the fake bright orange stuff at KFC like it’s nobody’s business.  But for me, true mac ‘n cheese nirvana is the baked gooey kind, where each forkful is accompanied by strands of melted cheese that dangle unattractively from your mouth.  Max Brenner’s is exactly that – though less so when your absent-minded waiter forgets about you and serves it to you lukewarm – which is why it has me returning again and again despite the fact that the bald man on their napkins scares me.

Let me clarify that I absolutely adore cheese.  I’m an equal opportunity cheese consumer, inhaling everything from Cheez Whiz to the fabulous sottocenere at Murray’s.  As a child, I used to eat multiple slices of Kraft singles nearly every day.  (Yes, I know it’s very processed cheese.  The horror!)  It was the perfect thing to nibble on as I curled into the corner of our ugly blue couch with my latest stash of books from the library.  I also have a distinct memory of eating cheese slices in Taipei while my relatives gawked at me like I was doing something scandalous; it just wasn’t something people did over there back in the early ’90s, when cheese had yet to become widely accepted in lactose-intolerant Asia.  Yes, cheese and I…we’ve had a lifelong love affair.

Last week, when I found myself contemplating yet another trip back to Max Brenner, I knew I had to find a way to create something similar at home.  I was dropping way too much money (because you simply can’t go there and not also get a chocolate cocktail and dessert) and well, I have more important things to save up for these days.  But mac ‘n cheese comes in all forms – some with a roux, some with sauces on the runny side, endless varieties of cheese and add-ins…the possibilities made my head spin.  Thankfully, Deb at Smitten Kitchen saved the day, as she tends to do, with this awesome, gooey, cheesy recipe.  I mean, really, you can’t go wrong with a recipe that calls for a pound of cheddar cheese.  It totally hit the spot and now I can get my mac ‘n cheese fix at home, where bald men are mercifully absent from my napkins.

Baked Mac ‘n Cheese

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Yield: 6-8 servings

I made the recipe as is, but Max Brenner’s contains bacon and a layer of breadcrumbs, and is served with a sprinkling of diced fresh tomatoes and a flask of marinara sauce.  If you want to create something similar to theirs, crisp 2-3 strips of bacon in a skillet, break it up into pieces, and mix into the pasta before pouring everything into the pan.  Once you pour the pasta mixture into the pan, sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs.  After removing mac ‘n cheese from oven, sprinkle with finely diced fresh tomatoes.  Serve with a classic marinara on the side.  (It may be unorthodox, but the marinara pairs really well with the mac ‘n cheese.  Personally, I like to spoon a few dollops of sauce on mine.)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter cut into several small chunks, plus more for greasing pan
1 cup cottage cheese (any fat content is fine)
2 cups milk (any fat content is fine)
1 teaspoon dry mustard
Pinch cayenne
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg (I used pre-grated)
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt (I used 1/4 as called for by the recipe but thought the end product was too salty)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 pound elbow pasta, uncooked.

Heat oven to 375°F and position an oven rack in upper third of oven.  Use butter to grease a 9-inch round or square baking pan.

In a blender, purée cottage cheese, mustard, cayenne, nutmeg and salt and pepper together.  Add milk and puree a few more seconds until mixture is smooth.

Reserve 1/4 cup grated cheese for topping. In a large bowl, thoroughly combine remaining grated cheese, milk mixture and uncooked pasta.  Pour into prepared pan, cover tightly with foil and bake 30 minutes.

Uncover pan, stir gently, sprinkle with reserved cheese and dot with chunks of butter. Bake, uncovered, 30 minutes more, until browned. Let cool at least 15 minutes before serving.

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