One of my consistent pregnancy cravings is Kraft macaroni and cheese – it’s not a particularly appealing food to me most of the time, but I really really want it in that first trimester! It probably helps that it is quick and easy to make if I’m feeling worn out from the hormones and just need something fast to feed the boys for dinner… but I feel somewhat guilty every time I make it, and I wanted to find an alternative that would be healthier for the boys as they’re growing and for me as I’m helping a new baby grow. I’ve had a great baked mac and cheese recipe for a few years now, but it is a labor of love and a misery in the summer (three burners and the oven on all at once in a tiny heat-trapping kitchen – not enjoyable).
Well, somewhat on a whim a couple weeks ago, I wondered if I could adapt that baked mac and cheese recipe to a stovetop recipe and still retain that rich, smooth, cheesy texture and flavor. I was doubtful, remembering many grainy cheese sauces from my mom’s attempt to replace the Kraft mac, but I decided it was worth a try. And to my great surprise and the boys’ great delight, it worked! We’ve made it at least four times since and Rondel’s asked for it for dinner, lunch, and even breakfast many more times than that.
Essentially, I make a simple roux with butter, flour, and milk – about half the milk I needed for the baked mac – add some shredded cheddar, cayenne pepper, black pepper, and maybe a touch of salt, and then mix the drained noodles with the sauce after the cheese has mostly melted. Some keys are:
- make sure the flour cooks sufficiently before adding the milk
- avoid over-browning or burning the flour
- stir thoroughly while adding the milk so no grainy floury pockets are left unmixed
- keep the heat low so the dairy doesn’t scald or develop a skin
- use a noodle with lots of texture to hold the sauce
- don’t skimp on the cayenne! The dairy mitigates the spice, but the pepper still manages to make the cheese taste sharper than it otherwise would, and enhances the cheese flavor that might otherwise be dulled by the milk, flour, and pasta.
I think high heat and insufficient whisking of the milk into the flour-butter mixture were at fault the one time our noodles were a bit on the grainy side.
We’ve been using a tri-color rotini noodle we found that apparently will provide about half a serving of vegetables in a normal child-sized amount of pasta – so the colors make the boys excited, and the added health benefits make me excited!
Anyway, for 8 ounces of pasta, here is the recipe I’ve settled on:
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp flour
- 1 cup milk
- 1/3 lb shredded sharp cheddar cheese (approximately – I just fill a bowl)
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- pepper and salt to taste (I usually omit the salt)
If you know how to make a roux, this will be a piece of cake. If you don’t, the technique is pretty simply to learn. Start by melting the butter at low to medium-low heat, then mix in the flour. Let the flour and butter mixture cook at low heat for at least 5-6 minutes, until the flour starts to brown (if it browns more quickly, turn down the heat!). Slowly, stirring constantly, add the milk to the browned flour-butter mixture, making sure to fully incorporate all the milk as you go. Finally, add the cheese and spices!
The whole sauce is then stirred into the cooked pasta and everyone can enjoy! If I make the sauce while the pasta is cooking (and the water coming to a boil), I find it doesn’t take much more time than the boxed mac and cheese, although the clean up is a bit worse – and the taste and nutrition are far better.