Southern Comfort: Mac and Cheese

January is a tough month for Susie. With each passing day, as the calendar numbers get higher, my winter-resistant mother is slowly unraveling at the seams.

Although seasonal changes are already in place by December, Susie the sun goddess is adequately distracted by her uniquely decorated Christmas tree and a mailbox full of holiday greeting cards.
Until. January 1.

Mac and cheese, please, with a side of stewed tomatoes. (Kim O'Donnel)

Almost like clockwork, my mother's tolerance of winter rapidly diminishes, and her mood takes a turn for the Arctic worst. It starts out as simple annoyance, but as soon as that first layer of ice covers the streets, my mother's emotional state turns into one of disgust and ultimately, inconsolable despair.

Right about now, as January comes to a close, Susie typically is boarding a plane headed for southwest Florida, but this year, she's delaying her escape due to my upcoming wedding in Puerto Rico. With the wedding (and tropical breezes) still a month away, my mother is climbing the wintry walls.

Yesterday's blustery, frozen conditions even had me yearning for comfort from the cold. The first thing that came to mind was macaroni and cheese, one of my top-five culinary salves. It had been just about a year since my last batch, which is how I justified the indulgence to the cholesterol-monitoring part of my brain.

The key to a soul-soothing mac and cheese is neither the amount nor the kind of cheese used -- that's up to you. Me, I prefer a sharp cheddar (and have tinkered with gruyere in the past), but if you like a Velveetta-y mac and cheese, THAT'S O.K. The key is in the white sauce. By white sauce, I mean milk that's thickened with a roux (equal parts fat and flour), seasoned with dry mustard, cayenne and nutmeg and thoroughly pre-heated for the addition of cheese.

One of the most commonly made mistakes with white sauce is taking it off the heat too soon. A white sauce needs to heat to about 160 degrees or thick enough to create a prominent streak on the back of a wooden spoon. This will take about 10 minutes over medium heat. Patience pays off, trust me. Once the white sauce is thick enough, THEN you can add the shredded cheese. For the smoothest, clump-free results, vigorously whisk the cheese into the white sauce until incorporated.

If you get that sauce down, baby, you've entered mac and cheese heaven. Pour it over those elbows, spritz the top with some bread crumbs, and wait just 30 minutes for the winter healing to begin.

While the pan was in the oven, I called Susie and got an earful of winter blues. I wished she lived close enough so I could have invited her for supper. A plate of mac and cheese is no magic carpet ride to Florida, but I'm confident it would have helped her forget what ails her, even for just a few minutes.

By the way, I paired my mac with stewed tomatoes, which can simmer while the mac is in the oven. It's a yin-yang of fat and acid that works beautifully.

Here's your chance to tell the class what comforts you like a sun visor in the middle of winter - please share in the comments area below!
Join me at noon today, for an hour of kitchen clatter, on all kinds of seasoned matters.

Macaroni and Cheese

9 ounces elbow macaroni
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus a little extra for greasing the pan
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese (about 8 ounces)
Optional: 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup plain bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 350. Grease the sides of a glass or ceramic baking dish with butter. Cook macaroni in salted boiling water until al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain pasta and transfer to buttered dish.

In a medium saucepan, add butter and allow to melt over low-medium heat. Add flour, and with a wooden spoon, stir quickly to combine and form a roux. Continue to stir, and cook for about 1 minute, making sure flour lumps disappear. Roux will be a golden yellow color.

Add milk, mustard, salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne and stir to combine. Cook on medium-low heat, stirring regularly to make sure milk does not scald, until mixture is thickened. The mixture is ready when a streak on the back of your wooden spoon is prominent. Add cheese and stir or whisk constantly until mixture is smooth and free of lumps. If using Worcestershire sauce, add now.

Pour cheese sauce over pasta to cover evenly. Top it off with a layer of bread crumbs. Place dish in oven and bake for about 30 minutes, until cheese begins to bubble. To crisp up bread crumb topping, place dish under broiler for about 1 minute. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly. Makes about 6 servings.

"Stewed" Tomatoes

1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 bell pepper, finely chopped
1 15 ounce-can whole plum tomatoes, including juices, (or if you're lucky enough, 6 plum tomatoes from your garden, fresh or canned)
Hot sauce of choice
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional: Herbs, such as oregano or thyme in the winter, basil in the summer

Heat a medium saucepan over medium heat and swirl oil inside until it coats the bottom surface evenly. Add onion, garlic and bell pepper, and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and stir to combine. Bring mixture up to a boil, then reduce heat and cook, at a simmer, covered.

Within 10 minutes or so, tomatoes will start to soften and break down; use the back of a wooden spoon to help the process, if desired. Cook until desired consistency and season with hot sauce and salt and pepper.

By Kim ODonnel |  January 30, 2007; 10:15 AM ET Dinner Tonight , Vegetarian/Vegan
Previous: Coconut Cake Diary, Part 2 | Next: Mom, Can I Be a Vegetarian?


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Yum. This looks fabu, Kim. One thing my mom adds are chopped sauteed onions. They add a little kick, too.

Posted by: Liz | January 30, 2007 10:47 AM

Just a note, as this is categorized under "Dinner tonight" and vegetarian": Worcestershire sauce is not vegetarian(anchovies), and cheddar usually is not vegetarian. Unless it specifically notes that it uses non-rennet stablizer, it is not a vegetarian food. (hosts, take note, doing dishes filled with cheese for your vegetarian guests often is not a successful strategy).

Posted by: Jim | January 30, 2007 11:19 AM

Dear Jim: As you'll see on the recipe, Worcestershire sauce is considered an optional ingredient given its fish content, and cheese, well, that's up to the individual. Most vegetarians I know eat cheese; I didn't claim this recipe to be vegan, just vegetarian.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | January 30, 2007 11:24 AM

Mmmmm...Mac 'n' cheese...I love the stuff! I haven't made it in a while but where I used to work, every time someone was going to have a baby, I always made a couple of trays that I froze for the family to have on hand for when they would no doubt be too busy too cook. Friends are going to have a baby any day now, so I'm thinking I'll be making a housecall with mac 'n' cheese in hand.

I like to flavor the roux with sauteed garlic and onion as well as cayenne or paprika, but I like the idea of worcestershire and mustard. I also like to use a couple of cheeses, one that's shredded and melted into the roux and another like gruyere that is cubed and mixed in with the macaroni and melts into the mac'n'cheese for a delicious bite of cheesiness. I also like to add grated parmesan to the bread crumb topping. Man, I'm gettin' hungry!

Posted by: Sean | January 30, 2007 11:32 AM

right, saw the optional bit, thanks. As a veg, I eat cheese, too, but only if it is truly veg cheese. I was just noting for those to whom it might not occur that many cheeses are made with rennet, which is made from the stomach lining of cows, and thus is not a veg product. I have had numerous experiences where resturants do not know this (and also where restaurants list a soup as veg and then when I ask, they say there is chicken broth in it, but that is another issue!).

Posted by: Jim | January 30, 2007 11:42 AM

For more recipes, try "Macaroni & Cheese: 52 Recipes from Simple to Sublime" by Joan Schwartz. There's definitely something for every taste.

Posted by: Hungry in Rockville | January 30, 2007 11:54 AM

and of course, vegan Worcestershire sauce is available... i've bought it at Whole Foods and other local health food markets.

Posted by: gaiagirl | January 30, 2007 11:55 AM

Kim - Please respond:
I am not a huge fan of milk, could I half the milk amount and use chicken broth (I'm not a vegitarian) for the cheese sauce?


Posted by: Danielle | January 30, 2007 12:08 PM

My older daughter requested mac & cheese "from scraps" as we now call it (that's how she interpreted of "from scratch" when she was 3) for dinner tomorrow night. I usually do the method where you cook the macaroni, layer it in the cassarole dish with grated cheese, then pour an egg and milk mixture over it, top with pread crumbs and bake. I think I'll try this, though--it sounds way better.

Posted by: seattle | January 30, 2007 12:14 PM

I love to make a meal like this using a fontina cheese, prosciutto, rigatoni and peas. Grown-up enough to serve to guests but so comforting.

My other comfort food is a pot roast that you can smell throughout the house as it cooks. A great meal on a snowbound day at home or a cold, bitter cold, Sunday.

Posted by: late to the party | January 30, 2007 12:40 PM

We just made a white sauce Mac and Cheese for the first time - it was yummy and super comforting. I usually make Mac and Cheese with tomatoes. It is a nice option if you want to lighten it up (or not) or if you are in a hurry. You make a batch of chunky spicy, garlic-y tomato sauce. Cook suitable pasta (shells, elbows, cavatelli). Grate sharp cheddar and parmasan or romano or whatever you like. Use less to lighten it up, more if you are having a tough day. Combine cheese, sauce, pasta, top with breadcrumbs, butter, and more parm, bake until done. Very easy, fast, and yummy if not possibly healthy.
Another Mac and Cheese hint is to have people over so you don't eat the whole thing yourself. Spread the love!

Posted by: teresa | January 30, 2007 1:02 PM

Kim, I love mac & cheese! I can't believe you went a year without it! My favorite way is with 4 cheeses: sharp cheddar, gruyere, asiago, and fontina. Talk about cheesy goodness!

Posted by: Jasmine | January 30, 2007 2:33 PM

My roommate and I like to make a low-fat mac and cheese by using 2% cheese (usually a sharp cheddar), fat free sour cream and low fat cream cheese. Top with some crushed wheat thins and sprinkle some of the cheese on top and it is absolute HEAVEN. I know what you're thinking, but try it and I'm sure you'll change your mind :)

Posted by: Erin | January 30, 2007 2:54 PM

Can you provide a stewed tomatoes recipe? I've been looking for one for months. I'm thinking the Southern-inspired one--a little bit sweet and with little soggy bits of white bread (which I can add on my own, of course).

Posted by: lida | January 30, 2007 2:55 PM

Lida! There's a stewed tomatoes recipe at the very end of the blog entry. Have a looksee...altho no white bread or sugar added...

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | January 30, 2007 3:14 PM

Mac & cheese is one of my comfort foods, too. But I wanted to add a comment re: your Mom. Maybe she suffers from SAD -- seasonal adjusted disorder -- a type of depression, as I do!

Posted by: Cecilia | January 30, 2007 4:17 PM

First time poster...

There's a Soul-Food restaurant in Baileys X-roads...their secret to the best mac-n-cheez I've EVER had is to use cheese soup.

Posted by: OhToEatEverythingI'dBeHappy | January 30, 2007 5:28 PM

Way too much work. Start with eight ounces of Dreamfields pasta, cook al dente (I like 9 minutes), drain, but not too thoroughly, leaving a little starchy water to collect in the bottom of the pan when you put the pasta back in. When the pasta is back in the pan, add 2 tbsps of cake flour (regular flour will be gritty) and stir until the flower lightly covers the pasta. Add eight ounces of shredded 2% cracker barrel sharp cheddar (buy it shredded, don't waste time and knuckle skin shredding yourself), along with 1 cup evaporated skim milk. Stir over low heat until the sauce thickens and serve hot.

With the Dreamfields pasta, the 2% cheese, and the evaporated skim milk, this is healthy enough to eat frequently, and still tastes nice and creamy, but can be made in about 20 minutes.

Posted by: charlie | January 30, 2007 5:59 PM

The soul food restaurant at Bailey's X-roads is called Flavors. Their mac and cheese is awesome and their cooked-to-order fried chicken is even better. Real American classics.

Posted by: charlie | January 30, 2007 6:01 PM

The BEST macaroni & cheese is custard casserole style, using evaporated skim milk & eggs for the custard, and lots of grated sharp cheddar for the cheese. The secret ingredient is nutmeg.

Did you really put Lea&Perrins in your mac&cheese? E.W.

Posted by: dynagirl | January 30, 2007 6:12 PM

I'm famous for serving mac&cheese at every party regardless of the occasion. One thing I do sometimes is slice up apple turkey sausage and dot that on top while it bakes - adds a bit of meat to the dish and the apple melds really well with the cheese. and I like using a variety of pasta shapes - penne and orechiette work really well.

Posted by: MacFiend | January 30, 2007 6:17 PM

Where in Bailey's Cross Roads? Do they do take-out?

Posted by: flavors | January 30, 2007 6:52 PM

I made this recipe last fall (I think you had posted it on the blog once before) and it was the best I've ever had. Maybe I'll make it again this weekend.

My mother would sometimes stir stewed tomatoes into the mac and cheese.

Posted by: Kathryn | January 31, 2007 9:23 AM

Flavors is located just off Columbia Pike, east of Route 7. Behind the Hess station or U-Haul. Sort of hard to see, but listed on the web/phone book. It's been a while, but pretty sure they do take-out. Chicken IS is there fried fish..and greens...TRUE Soul-Food. I think WaPo wrote them up at some point. Def worth the try. Closed on Mondays. Big church crowd Sundays, if I remember correctly. Enjoy!

Posted by: OhToEatEverythingI'dBeHappy | January 31, 2007 9:32 AM

This Mac & Cheese looks great! But, what size pan does one bake this in? 8x8? 9x13? something inbetween?

Please help

Posted by: Ocean View | January 31, 2007 1:01 PM

Lida: My grandmother used to put chunks of bread and a little sugar in her stewed tomatoes, too. I didn't know it was a Southern dish, I just thought that's the way it was always made. But I'll try Kim's version and just add the bread chunks myself.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 31, 2007 1:22 PM

One of my winter favorites: Ham and scalloped potatoes. (More of that lovely white sauce!) It's the perfect way to use up leftover ham, and with the velvety white sauce covering the dense potatoes and mixing with the smoky ham, it truly is comfort food.

Your recipe for mac 'n' cheese sounds very similar to my favorite mac 'n' cheese recipe (from the McCormick Spice of Life cookbook). The only exceptions are that my recipe uses onion powder and Season-All and no worcestershire. It is a fabulous recipe, and I always get rave reviews when I make it.

Posted by: Kay D. | January 31, 2007 3:33 PM

This recipe is very like the mac and cheese I make regularly--the white sauce is a big plus and worth the time and effort. My carbo loving 13 year old is a big fan. Nothing quite like mac and cheese when in need of comfort food--unless the choice is meat loaf and mashed potatoes.

Posted by: jsd517 | January 31, 2007 3:35 PM

Kim, it sounds delicious. My mother took her fabulous mac'n'cheese recipe to the grave, and I've been looking for a good replacement ever since without much luck. Looking forward to trying yours out! And the stewed tomatoes recipe as a side sounds like a really good match; will have to try that too.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 31, 2007 4:58 PM

Add some sauteed bell peppers before baking- delicious!

Posted by: jessc | January 31, 2007 5:31 PM

My mom's recipe is almost the same: finely chopped onion in the roux, a chunk (about the size of a pound of butter, so I guess that's a pound) of fontina cheese, a bay leaf, a pinch of nutmeg and 15 peppercorns (it was always a family thing to count out each pepper corn as you found it) were the only variations... so not really the same, but super good. It's become my favorite dairy dinner to make/eat before a fasting holiday (Yom Kippur bing the big one). It's great, protein, carbs, dairy. Add a side of veggies and you're set!

Steamed sugarsnap peas are a great side for mac'n'cheese. They're crunchy and slightly sweet and super healthy! Tofurky italian sausages make an eerily good side to mac'n'cheese too. I'm having a hard time going from growing up a strict veg. to more libral (eating faux meat) dining.

Tillmook makes all veg. cheeses that are available in almost every supermarket, some say VEGITARIAN or KOSHER on them. All kosher cheeses are vegitarian and rennet free.

Posted by: petiteviola | February 1, 2007 4:05 PM

to petiteviola:
It is not necessarily true that all kosher chesses are vegetarian and rennet free. See this discussion on chowhound:

Posted by: Upstate Veg Mom | February 2, 2007 12:29 PM

this recipe sounds very good. the seasoning is similar to one published by marvin woods. that one is excellent!! thank you for suggesting stewed tomatoes as a side dish.

Posted by: martha | February 2, 2007 11:03 PM

Kim - How would I adjust this for 1 lb. of macaroni, would I just double everything?

Posted by: Meg | February 6, 2007 8:07 PM

About dish size-

I used a 9x13 and it worked well.

Posted by: Megan | February 7, 2007 1:50 PM

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