When I think of comfort food.... stuff that brings me back to childhood.... nothing tops the list better than baked macaroni and cheese casserole. You know the kind... with rich cheddar cheese sauce, chunks of smoked ham, and the cheese on top turning crusty and brown....
Excuse me.... I'll need a minute here.
Here's my version, and how to make it. It's not cheap, and it's not low fat, and it's almost bound to make a person eat too much. Ok, everyone got that? You have been warned!
Of course, it all starts with cheese. In this case, chunks of New York extra sharp cheddar and Longhorn cheddar. Slice them up and set aside where nobody can walk along and snack while you cook. Consider leaving a knife handy to defend the cheese with, just don't get blood on the cutting board.
Have a bag of shredded sharp white cheddar handy too, to layer into the casserole.
While you are slicing and dicing, chop an onion into small chunks.
This recipe calls for a deadly rich cheese sauce, and that starts with onions!
Saute the onions in lots of butter in a deep sauce pan. They need to be browning off and caramelizing, but not totally fried. About like the photo shows will do nicely. Once sauteed, drop in a few tablespoons of flour and stir into the onions and butter. Continue cooking till the flour just starts to brown and smell nutty.
Into this thick sauteed onion paste, pour a two or three cups of cold whole milk while stirring over heat. Do not stop stirring, or it will burn. Continue heating and stirring till it starts to thicken. Now dump in all that lovely cheese. You should have at least two heaping handfuls, and more is better.
Keep stirring as it heats back to a simmer while the cheese melts. Add milk as needed while stirring, to make a thick cheese sauce. Once the cheese is melted set the pot off the heat and season to taste. I prefer lots of fresh ground pepper, a few big pinches of kosher salt, and just a dash of Crystal hot sauce. A few tablespoons of dried parsley go over well too.
In a large pot of salted boiling water, start the macaroni. Once you dump it in, stir gently and keep stirring till it returns to a boil. A dash of butter in the water helps flavor and prevents sticking. Turn the heat down to a simmer and let the pasta cook while you do other things. We are looking for 'just cooked' here, since it will finish cooking as it bakes in the cheese sauce. Test the pasta every minute or so and drain it as soon as it turns tender, but not totally cooked.
While this is going on, slice a smoked ham steak into bite sized chunks. Don't try to save money here, as flavor is everything. Good baked macaroni and cheese is not a cheap dish, so save money elsewhere. A high quality smoked ham steak costs five or six dollars around these parts, but is worth it for the flavor.
Normally I would saute the ham steak to make the flavor pop, but then I would lose all that lovely juice. In this case, that wonderful smoked ham goodness has a mission.... to bring all it's flavor to the casserole. As the ham is already cooked, it's simply sliced into chunks and set aside till the pasta is done.
Once the macaroni is drained, it goes back in the pot. Pour on the rich cheese sauce and stir in the ham chunks. Layer it into a deep casserole dish with shredded sharp cheddar cheese and more parsley. More cheese goes on top, leaving enough room to get a lid on. A few seasoned bread crumbs won't hurt either.
The mix should be a little soupy with the sauce as the macaroni will soak up a lot of it. Lid it up and into a 350 degree oven for an hour.
It's not a bad idea to nail the kitchen door shut right about now, and get a shotgun. The smell will begin to spread soon, and people will turn up like zombies in a 2AM sci-fi movie.
After the hour is up, take off the lid and return it to the oven for another twenty minutes, or until the top browns off and the Mac sticking up turns crunchy.
Once so..... it's done.
Remove from the oven and allow to rest for fifteen or twenty minutes while you pull those nails out of the kitchen door. It will thicken some.... and cool a bit.
Right now would be a fine time to mention a few of those household chores that need done.... and how serving the casserole might have to be put off till they are done.....
Serve in heaping spoonfuls on plates, with sliced tomatoes if that sort if thing is desired.
A word of advice.....
Making two casseroles is as easy as one, and nothing in the world makes a good a leftover as mac and cheese casserole......IF there is any left over.
(Note: Click on any of the photos to enlarge, if you wish)