Easiest, Creamiest Stovetop Mac & Cheese

Easiest Stovetop Mac and CheeseAs I plopped down on the couch for dinner the other day over a plate of this awesome mac & cheese, I mused that nothing gave me a good ego boost like mastering a bowl of this stuff. On the one hand, I was kidding, but in a way it’s also kind of true. I mean, I’ve had – and made – a lot of mediocre mac & cheese. Sorry, family and friends! So many recipes underestimate the amount of cheese you should use and have you stick to just one kind, while others have you overcook the pasta until all that is left is a very gummy or, still worse, gummy and dry, mess.

While darling Bear claims there’s no such thing as bad mac & cheese, I have to disagree. It’s real and it’s a tragedy. So, let’s start anew with this recipe, which is easy as much as it is tasty. It’s, in my opinion, the easiest, creamiest stovetop version, so whether it suits you just right, or it acts as the base for your spicier, more garlicky, ham and broccoli version, for example, then that’s just fine, too. What matters here is that we’re saving mac & cheese from all the horrible things that have been done to it and making a classic version that is worthy of all the accolades people give it as a dish.

Easiest Stovetop Mac and CheeseI use four cheeses for this version. I know you’re saying, “whoa, girl!” but I swear it’s the blending of multiple cheeses that will get you, in part, to where you want to go. Mac and cheese, while a homey dish, doesn’t mean it’s beyond science. What kind of science, you ask? Well, the one that covers how cheeses work together, how they melt or crisp, add creaminess or thicken a sauce while adding a salty bite…and you said you hated science! This recipe relies on a blend of cheeses because we want a mac and cheese that isn’t just one note. You know why so many mac and cheeses are just blah and tasteless even though you’ve added 15lbs of cheese? Because you’re only using one kind and that, combined with a bunch of not-too-flavorful elbow noodles, is not going to bring all the boys to the yard.

Easiest Stovetop Mac and CheeseSo, here today we’re going to use the four cheeses of American, asiago, pecorino romano, and cream cheese. Did you see that last one coming? It’s so right for a creamy, smooth sauce. You’ll never make macaroni and cheese again without it! Both the asiago and the pecorino romano add the saltiness you need to bring the cheese sauce together, but also to add some more, much needed flavor to the noodles. All of the cheese melt into the sauce beautifully while also helping to thicken it. The main cheese is regular old American though and sneer all you want, but it melts like a dream and brings a delicious flavor that is familiar. Coupled with onion, hot sauce, yellow mustard, salt, and fresh ground pepper, this mac and cheese is complex in flavor without being difficult to master or snooty. It’s perfect for a weeknight dinner.

Easiest Stovetop Mac and CheeseTo keep it moist and creamy, this stuff never sees the inside of an oven and, really, it needn’t. Yet, how can you have macaroni and cheese without some semblance of a crunchy, buttery crust? You can’t! So, the topping is all done on the stove-top too and, in all honesty, I absolutely prefer it this way, as the panko retains all of its crunch and doesn’t sink into the macaroni like toppings tend to do when you bake it all together. Make way in your recipe boxes for this one, it’s sure to give other versions a real run for their money and, I’m guessing, will outshine most of the competition. Enjoy!

Easy, Stovetop Mac & Cheese
Yields 6 servings

Ingredients:
1lb of elbow macaroni
Water
Canola oil
1 small onion, diced
7 Tablespoons of butter, divided
4 Tablespoons of flour
4 cups of milk, divided (3-1/2 for sauce, 1/2 extra to thin, if needed)
Salt & pepper
1-1/2 Tablespoons of garlic powder, divided
12oz of American cheese, cubed
3/4 cup of asiago cheese, grated finely
3/4 cup of pecorino romano cheese, grated finely
4oz of cream cheese, cubed
Hot sauce
2 teaspoons of yellow mustard
1 cup of panko bread crumbs
2 Tablespoons of minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

Directions
Fill a large stock pot with water and add a few generous pinches of salt. Bring to a boil, add pasta and stir for the first minute so that the pasta does not stick together.

While the pasta is cooking, melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a sauce pan over medium heat and finely dice your onion. When the butter is melted, add the onion and cook for several minutes until the onions start to become translucent – about 5-7 minutes. Once the onion is cooked, add about a 1/2 teaspoon of salt and pepper each and 1 Tablespoon of garlic powder. Add 4 Tablespoons of flour and stir to combine. Allow this mixture (the roux) to cook for 2 minutes or so. Next, turn the heat up to medium high and add the milk. With a whisk, stir the mixture vigorously to break up the roux into the milk and allow it to dissolve. Allow to heat through, stirring it every minute. When the roux has dissolved and the heat rises, the mixture will begin to thicken, when you notice this starting to happen, stand watch and stir frequently so that the mixture does not burn or become too thick. When it reaches milkshake consistency, turn the heat back down to medium and add all of the cheese and stir to combine. Allow all of the cheese to melt slowly, stirring every minute or so to help it become incorporated. Once the cheese has melted entirely into the sauce, add a few dashes of hot sauce to your tastes and the yellow mustard; stir thoroughly. Taste for salt and pepper and add more if necessary. If sauce seems too thick at this point, you can add up to about a 1/2 cup of milk, though I suggest starting with a smaller amount, stirring to combine, and seeing if you need more.

Cook the pasta until al dente (it should still have some bite to it, as it will soften more as it sits in the sauce), then drain it and return it to the pot. If you are still readying the other ingredients, add a small drizzle of canola oil to the pasta, stir, put a lid on it and allow it to sit off the heat while you complete the other elements. If your sauce is ready to go, omit the canola oil step and add the cheese sauce to the pasta and stir thoroughly to combine. Cover with a lid while you prepare the topping; you may choose to keep it over a “warm” level flame if you’d like, though the lid should keep the macaroni and cheese hot since the topping doesn’t take long to put together. Be aware that even over “low” or “warm,” the sauce will continue to thicken, making the pasta drier.

In a frying pan, melt 3 tablespoons of butter with 1 teaspoon of canola oil over medium heat. Add bread crumbs, some salt and pepper to your tastes, and 1/2 a tablespoon of garlic powder. Stir together and toast the bread crumbs, stirring occasionally, until thoroughly browned, about 5 minutes total. Be sure to keep an eye on them, though, they go from light brown to burnt quickly! When the bread crumbs are toasted, remove from the pan and allow to cool for about 5 minutes. In the meantime, plate your macaroni and cheese either on individual plates or in a larger casserole-type vessel. When the bread crumbs have cooled, add the very finely minced parsley and stir. Top macaroni and cheese with topping and serve. To reheat macaroni and cheese after refrigeration, add it to a heavy-bottom pot with a splash of milk and cover with a lid. Apply medium heat and allow to come up to temperature, stirring every few minutes until the sauce has melted and become creamy again.

Pasta with Mascarpone, Lemon, Spinach, & Pine Nuts

After all of that complaining I went and did about the length of winter, today the thermometer reached 98°F. In Minneapolis. In May. Normally, such temperatures turn me into a wild beast of a thing, but truth be told, I was only a little bit sorry for today’s heat. While the meows were seeking out cool, dark corners to lay in and Bear was putting in extra screens and moving fans around, I knew that, finally, the time had come to make this pasta dish! I’ve been holding onto the recipe from the Kitchn since it was published last October, waiting for the weather to warm back up and, more importantly, for it to coincide with the sale of mascarpone cheese! The latter seeming, at points, even less likely than spring’s eventual thaw.

Being the lucky lady that I am, I found a sale on a tub of the good stuff last week, though I won’t deny tapping my foot and mulling over whether or not the time was yet nye. Turns out, it was and a sensible purchase was had! When I saw the temperature was going up this week, I knew the time was upon us to indulge.

Have you ever had pasta with a sauce that is heavy on the lemon? If you’re not shy about the idea, try it. You’ll ask yourself why you don’t eat pasta with lemon-something-or-other all the time. Take this sauce, for example. There’s so much brightness from the fresh lemon juice and the lemon zest, but then the mascarpone gets stirred in and it’s creamy, dreamy with just a little bit of sweetness to take away some of that punch from the citrus. The spinach wilts into the hot pasta, so it’s soft and earthy, but again, nestled throughout this smooth, velvety sauce that gets a little kick with some garlic, fresh cracked pepper, and just the right amount of parmesan cheese. The toasted nuts join a little fresh lemon zest on top and another turn of the pepper mill.

Every forkful feels like the perfect bite. It is as elegant a dish as it is easy. The ingredients are few, the method simple (and great for warm days), and the clean-up is virtually effortless. I used one pot, a bowl, and a colander only. Pro-tip: Mix the sauce in the same bowl you’ll serve it in! You’ll have one less bowl to clean and, better yet, your pasta be coated by every last drop!

Spaghetti with Mascarpone, Lemon, Spinach, & Pine Nuts
Serves 4 as a main course; Adapted from here.

Ingredients:
2 lemons, zested & juiced (I used 5 tablespoons of juice)
8-ounces of mascarpone cheese
1lb of spaghetti
1 very large bunch of fresh spinach (approximately 6 cups), chopped
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
1/2 cup of parmesan cheese
Salt & fresh pepper
3/4 cup of pine nuts, toasted

Directions:
Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. While waiting for the water to bubble, prepare the sauce. Combine 3/4 of the lemon zest, lemon juice, mascarpone, garlic powder, parmesan cheese, salt, and pepper and mix until fairly smooth. If you have a few lumps, they’ll work their way out when they hit the hot pasta. If you haven’t already done so, you’ll want to toast your pine nuts while waiting for the water and pasta, as well. Add them to a dry pan and set over medium heat until they’re are lightly browned, giving them a shake every 2-3 minutes. When you can really start to smell them, they’re done.

Cook the pasta. With a minute or so left before the pasta reaches “al dente,” add the spinach. When the pasta is finished, scoop about a cup and a half of pasta water from the pot and then drain the noodles. Add the noodles to the bowl with the sauce and add about 1/4 cup of the pasta water and stir together. Add more pasta water until a creamy consistency is achieved. Top the pasta with the remaining lemon zest, the toasted pine nuts, and a few cracks of fresh pepper. Additional parmesan can be added, if desired.

Spicy Sausage & Kale Tortellini Soup

Lucky for you if Spring has sprung in your neck of the woods. In Minneapolis, the snow is still coming down in some accumulation every other day, the wind that blows is still icy rather than cool, and the back parking lot of our apartment building has a covering of ice so thick, you could preserve a dinosaur in it. Please, goddess of all things blogging, let it be our last winter here.

While Minneapolis is a great city and saw me through my grad program with no shortage of laughter or love, the winters are killer and in a way that no New England winter ever was. I will take a Nor’easter over an Alberta Clipper any day. Oh, how I rue the day I was forced to finally learn the meaning of that phrase!

If I thought it’d ever see the light of day when posted on Pinterest, I might even consider naming this recipe Alberta Clipper soup, as it saw us through the tail end of one a week or so ago. With temperatures hovering around -15°F, it was clearly soup weather, but what kind? I wanted something that felt a little exciting, that brought some heat even if just on the palate, something different than the creamy soups of early winter and the clear, chicken-broth based, lighter ones that welcomed in the new year.

When I pulled Italian sausage from the freezer, I nearly ditched soup altogether and made sausage and peppers, but started thinking about roasted red peppers in the jar, how they make such a deep, creamy soup base if you treat them real nice. I remembered I had kale par-boiled and weatherproofed in the freezer just waiting for me to plunge it into something hot – you can certainly use fresh, though, and just plan on cooking it a bit longer until it is wilted. The rest of the soup came together easily: a heavy dose of red pepper flakes to warm the throat and nose, Worcestershire sauce for beefiness, and plump little cheese tortellini simply because they’re delicious.

When the soup is nearly finished (before adding the sausage back in to simmer for a bit, before the tortellini join the party), I took some broth and the veggies that came with it to a separate bowl and gave it all a thorough pureeing with the immersion blender, though you could of course use a blender or food processor too. This resulted in about 2 cups of a thick (think chunky applesauce consistency) broth that when added back to the soup made the body of it all velvety. Our bowls were warm and ample.

This soup goes perfectly with good conversation, a sip or two of dry red wine, and a fireplace. Or, if you’re us, a DVR cached showing of the yule log. On mute.

Spicy Sausage & Kale Tortellini Soup
Yields 6-8 servings

Ingredients:
1lb of sweet Italian sausage, removed from casings and broken into 1-inch chunks (you can also roll them like meatballs)
2 Tablespoons of olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, diced very finely
1/2 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon of dried basil
1 bay leaf
Salt & pepper to taste
4 cups of beef broth
4 cups of chicken broth
2 Tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce
1-1/2 cups of fresh kale
2 cups of cheese tortellini, cooked separately*

Directions:
In an 8-quart stock pot, add 1 Tablespoon of oil and cook chunks of sausage over medium high until they are cooked through. Remove from the pot and set aside. Assess the bottom of the pot and add another tablespoon of oil if needed in order to sautee onion over medium heat until translucent. Add garlic and cook an additional 2 minutes. Add red pepper flakes, dried basil, bay leaf, and salt & pepper to the onion mixture and allow to continue cooking for another minute or two being careful not to burn the garlic. Add the 8 cups of broth, the Worcestershire sauce, and put on a lid leaving it slightly ajar. Cook until the soup comes to a low boil. Add the kale and cook until wilted. Next, add the cooked sausage and cook an additional 5 minutes on medium-low. At this point, you can add the cooked tortellini to the soup and serve the whole pot as a meal or add the tortellini to individual bowls and ladle the hot soup on top. As per usual with soup, this is even better the next day!

*Note: I choose to cook my tortellini separately and add it to individual bowls rather than cooking it in the soup or adding it after it’s been cooked and storing it combined because I find pasta loses any texture when kept in the broth in the fridge. If this doesn’t bother you or you prefer your pasta soft, feel free to add it earlier or cook it in the broth.