The Best Macaroni and Cheese

One of the running themes on my blog apart from my fixation with tamil cinema, joint-family drama, maamiyaar stories, good food and good eating are my ‘weight-loss’ attempts. But this time I have decided to get down to business, to cut to the second half of the film, to get to the chase. Last weekend Hasini and I got on the merry-go-round at the beach, the mini-version of the giant wheel that has the cradle like hanging seats (the one that Kaipulla sits in in “Winner”). What was I thinking? At the beach and without the extended family around (by extended family, I mean the maamiyaar/mother-in-law) I fancy myself a little girl too. I help Jagan dig pits to get to wet sand, stuff myself with masala kadalai, bajji and ice cream and then when Hasini pleads to get on the vertical merry-go-round, I join her. 

baked macaroni and cheese




The merry-go-round guy eggs me on “Vaanga vanga, neenga kuda varalam” (You can get on it too). For a moment, I forget that I am notoriously woozy headed, that I am overweight, that the poor fellow might break his arm. But up we go, and every time he has to let people get on or off the wheel, he has to keep us up. He grunts, exerts his full strength and then realizes it is beyond him, shouts out to his friends for help. I expect his entire kuppam to come running, but a slender little teenager steps in from the neighbouring merry-go-round to give him a hand. When I finally get down, I vow to return a fit and svelte mom.

baked macaroni and cheese


It may be months before I bite into chocolate, lick mousse cups clean, eat biryani and bajji, order ghee roast or slurp basundhi. Now before I go on a diet, a diet that defies all things that I believe in life (and my belief in life can be summarized in two words “eating well”) I want one last cheesy, gooey fling. I want to go crazy. I make an over the top macaroni and cheese (courtesy: Food52), chock full of all my favourites – roasted cauliflower, sweet corn and chicken, all stirred into the most luscious béchamel sauce and loaded with grated cheddar, topped with breadcrumbs and baked to cheesy bubbly perfection. Amen!  

baked macaroni and cheese


Prep time: 20 mins (does not include cooking chicken, roasting/blanching vegetables)
Cooking time: 40 mins
Serves: 5-6

Ingredients

Macaroni – 200-225 gm (a little less than half of a 500 gm pack, as if you didn’t know the math. I wanted to tell you that’s how I measured it. I had no weigh scale)

Blanched/Roasted Cauliflower – 1-1/2 cups (small florets. Feel free to use blanched broccoli or roasted mushrooms or any other veggies of your choice)
Cooked diced chicken – 1 cup (skip if you want to make it vegetarian
Sweet corn kernels – ½ cup

Ingredients – For the sauce

All purpose flour/Maida – 1/2 cup
Unsalted Butter – 1/2 cup
Whole Milk – 2 cups
Cheddar Cheese – 200 gm grated (reserve about ½ cup for the topping)
Salt to taste
Black pepper powder – 1 tsp
Paprika – ¾ tsp

Ingredients – Topping

Bread crumbs – 1 cup (4 slices of bread should make 1 cup. Instead of bread crumbs, you could cut the slices into tiny squares, toast them and use as topping too. In fact I liked this variation even better)

Method
  1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
  2. First cook the pasta. Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Tip in the macaroni and cook till al dente. When you bite into a piece, it shouldn’t be soft all through but offer some resistance. Drain the water and rinse in cold water and set aside the macaroni. I like to rinse in cold water (normal room temp water) to stop the macaroni from getting sticky. Set aside.
  3. Heat a large pan. Add the butter and let it melt. Add the flour and cook whisking the flour and butter to a roux (thickish dough like mixture) but don’t let it brown. Pour in the milk and whisk to incorporate the roux and milk into a smooth, homogenous sauce. Continue cooking the sauce till it coats the back of a spoon and is nice and thick. Switch off and remove from heat.
  4. Stir in the grated cheese. Add the spice powders – salt, black pepper powder and paprika. Mix.
  5. Add in the cooked macaroni and mix.
  6. Now is the time to add in all your favourite things – cooked chicken (small dice), blanched broccoli, roasted cauliflower, roasted mushrooms, sweet corn anything. This time I used roasted cauliflower for which I cut up the cauliflower into small florets, tossed it in a teaspoon of oil and salt and roasted in an oven for 30 minutes. Alternatively you can blanch these veggies too. The previous time I made macaroni I used blanched broccoli. Heat up water to a rolling boil, dump in broccoli florets, boil for 2-3 minutes, then drain and pour cold water over them. Drain and use.
  7. Once all your favourite things are mixed in, butter the bottom and sides of a 9×13 inch casserole dish. Tip the macaroni mixture into the pan and level it.
  8. Sprinkle the grated cheese all over the macaroni.
  9. For the final crunchy topping, you could just sprinkle just plain bread crumbs or you could fry the bread crumbs in a dash of butter and then sprinkle that or you could cut up bread slices into tiny squares, toast them and then use them as topping (my favourite). Or like Jagan likes it, you could skip the bread topping layer totally.
  10. Place the casserole in the middle rack of a preheated oven and bake for 40 mins – 50 mins or till the top is golden brown and the cheese is bubbly underneath. You could switch to roast/grill mode the last 5 minutes for that lovely golden top. I do it all the time.
  11. Remove from the oven. Serve hot. Enjoy!


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