Gail’s Baked Mac ‘n’ Cheese.

I went to college about 1000 miles away from home, and at times it was rough for a homebody like me! Home is comforting and safe and easy—and that’s part of the reason why I wanted to go far, far away. To stretch myself a bit, get uncomfortable, and try something a little bit scary.

But not every experience needs to be new and unknown; sometimes safe and comfortable is just what the doctor ordered. And without any of my own family nearby, college-me found it especially thrilling to get to spend a weekend at the homes of some of my friends. It was so much fun to hang out with their families, pet their dogs, and see what it was like in the towns where they grew up. Visiting my beloved roommate Maura’s family was always a lot of fun for many reasons, not the least of which was the amazing FOOD! Maura’s mom and dad are awesome cooks and never failed to whip up something absolutely delicious whenever I came to visit; I have droolingly fond memories of her mom Gail’s key lime pie, and her mac ‘n’ cheese was always out of this world. I was overcome with a craving for it this past weekend, and they were nice enough to share the recipe with me. And, no surprise, it was the best mac ‘n’ cheese I’ve ever home-made myself. Check it out – this is the amazing Gail’s Baked Mac ‘n’ Cheese!

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INGREDIENTS (this served 3 people 2 BIG helpings each, with leftovers)

1 lb (1 box) cavatappi or your favorite pasta
4 tbsp butter
olive oil
1 small onion, diced
3 tbsp flour
3 cups milk (approximately – you’re just going for the right sauce consistency, so eyeball it a bit)
1 cup Gruyere cheese, shredded
1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste
1 tbsp or more Sriracha or other hot sauce
3/4 tsp Dijon mustard
panko bread crumbs

Just the Recipe link: Gail’s Baked Mac ‘n’ Cheese

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until slightly underdone. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water (it’s nice and starchy and is great to have on hand to add to the sauce later), and then drain the pasta and set it aside. It will finish cooking in the oven later.

Heat butter and a drizzle of olive oil over medium high, and add the onions. Cook until softened and translucent.

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Add the flour and stir as it forms a paste. Let it cook for about 2 minutes, stirring the whole time.

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Then grab your whisk and slowly pour in 1 cup milk, whisking vigorously to avoid creating any lumps. Once this first addition of milk is incorporated, whisk in the rest of the milk. once all the milk is incorporated, you can trade in your whisk for a spoon if you like, and keep stirring as the sauce thickens.

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Once the sauce has thickened and coats the spoon thickly, stir in the cheese.

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Add the nutmeg, salt, pepper, Sriracha, and Dijon mustard at this point, tasting and adjusting to get the flavor you want. I ended up adding a lot more Sriracha than I initially planned. It’s just so good in here.

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By this time, the sauce had thickened a little more than I wanted it to. To get it back to that gooey creamy sauciness, I added a bit of the pasta water that I had set aside earlier. When the sauce consistency is to your liking, stir in the pasta and coat it completely in beautiful cheesy goodness.

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Pour the whole thing into a greased baking dish and spread it out evenly. Top with bread crumbs and drizzle with a bit of olive oil.

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Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the sides are bubbling and the topping is browned and crunchy.

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Devour!

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Baked Italian Macaroni and Cheese.

As I’ve mentioned before, I came back from my trip to Scotland with crisps, chocolate bars, and Nigellissima, Nigella Lawson’s latest cookbook. On Sunday, in honor of Nigella’s birthday and our hungry stomachs, my sister and I cracked open this wonderful tome and made her Italian-inspired mac and cheese. After switching up a couple of things and converting all of the measurements from metric to standard (and laughing as we tried and failed to guess how much 60 ml and 125 g of things were….metric, it just doesn’t work for me), we got to dig in and enjoy this stuff. So good! We’re thinking that maybe next time we make this, we’ll stir in some caramelized onions, and bacon or pancetta or something nice and salty would be a good addition too. Either way, yum. Happy Birthday, beloved Lady Lawson!

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INGREDIENTS

4 cups macaroni
1 cup whole milk
2 cups chicken stock
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 cups cheddar, grated
3/4 cup parmesan, grated
1 1/2 tbsp corn starch
generous dash of dry mustard powder
generous dash of paprika
1 egg, beaten
3/4 cup fresh mozzarella, cubed
1 tbsp butter
salt and pepper to taste

Just the Recipe link: Baked Italian Macaroni and Cheese

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Heat a pot of salted water for the pasta. Cook the pasta to a still-firm al dente (it’s going in the oven, so it should still be slightly undercooked). When you drain the pasta, reserve 1 cup of the cooking water, to add to the sauce later if needed.

Now, the cheese sauce. In a large saucepan that’ll be big enough to hold all the pasta, heat the milk, stock, and bay leaves and simmer for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the cheddar in a bowl and toss it with the corn starch, mustard powder, and paprika (we had a brick of yellow cheddar about to run out, and then we started a new brick of white cheddar; hence the yellow and white. In mac and cheese as in life, color doesn’t matter).

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Then remove the bay leaves from the milk and stir in the cheddar. Turn the heat down to low, stirring as the sauce thickens, about 10 minutes.

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In a separate bowl, add a spoonful of the hot cheese sauce to the beaten egg to temper, and use a fork to stir.

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Take the sauce off the heat and whisk in the egg, mozzarella, butter, and salt and pepper. You’ll probably need a bit more salt and pepper than you think you’ll need, but be careful not to oversalt. Just try a bite after your first addition, and add seasoning as needed. Stir until melt-ily incorporated.

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Toss the pasta in the sauce to coat, and then pour into a greased baking dish. Sprinkle with a handful of cheddar and/or parmesan, if you like.

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Bake about 15 minutes, until the top just starts to brown. Leave it to cool and firm up a bit for 5-10 minutes and dig in!

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Spaghetti Carbonara.

A friend studied abroad in Rome. She came back with tales of Italian adventures, a pair of gorgeous leather boots, and a love of pasta carbonara. But woe is her! She couldn’t find a decent carbonara in any stateside restaurant. One day I was watching the Cooking Channel and I saw one of my food idols, Nigella Lawson, whip up a gorgeous carbonara. I decided then that I would do my best to recreate my friend’s long lost Italian love, and this is that recipe. Simple but powerful, it’s a pasta experience good enough to satisfy a traveler’s nostalgia (hers) and even win over the pasta-ambivalent (yours truly).

INGREDIENTS

12 oz. whole wheat spaghetti or other pasta
7 strips of bacon, cut into lardons
splash of stock or white wine
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
3 eggs
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3/4 cup half and half
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of nutmeg
1/2 cup English peas, cooked

DIRECTIONS

Cook pasta until al dente. While the pasta cooks, brown bacon in a large pan. When browned but not crispy, remove bacon from pan and place on a paper towel to wick away fat.

Pour off some of the bacon grease, reserving about a teaspoon in the pan. Add garlic and shallot and cook until golden. Remove from pan and set aside.

Stir in wine or stock to deglaze.

In a bowl, whisk together eggs, Parmesan, half and half, salt and pepper, and nutmeg.

Drain the al dente pasta, reserving 1 cup of pasta cooking water. Over medium heat, add hot pasta to the deglazed pan, and pour in half of the egg mixture to create a sauce. Stir constantly. Sauce will become thick as you stir.

Add the bacon, garlic, shallots, and peas, and then pour in the rest of the egg mixture and continue to stir.

Add a splash or two of the pasta liquid to reach desired sauce consistency. Remove from heat. Season with more pepper, garnish with chopped parsley, and serve. Prego!

Penne all’arrabbiata with Asparagus.

As you might have guessed from the lack of pasta recipes here, I’m not a pasta fan. But every once in a while I get a craving for noodles smothered in a creamy tomato sauce or a spicy pesto, and today was one of those days. This dish is on the hotter side (“arrabbiata” means “angry” in Italian), so feel free to adjust the amount of red pepper flakes you add if you’re a spice whimp. It shouldn’t be overpoweringly hot though–the fresh mozzarella makes the sauce creamy and smooth. A very easy recipe to make vegan if that’s your style–just use vegan cheese!

INGREDIENTS
1 lb penne
1/4 cup olive oil
1 can crushed tomatoes
1 onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp red pepper flakes
10-20 asparagus spears
1 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded
1 cup fresh basil, chopped (or 1/2 cup dried basil)
salt
pepper
grated Parmesan cheese

DIRECTIONS

Heat oil over medium flame and add onions, garlic, and pepper flakes and cook for 2 minutes.

Then add crushed tomatoes. Simmer over low heat, uncovered, until thickened, about 20 minutes. Stir in basil and mozzarella and add salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat.

While waiting for the sauce to cook, make the pasta and asparagus. Boil the pasta in salted water until tender. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the boiling water.

In a separate pan, blanche the asparagus in a pan of shallow boiling water for 2 minutes until bright green and al dente. Then remove from heat and rinse with cold water; this stops the cooking process and allows the spears to keep their bright color. Set aside.

Add cooked pasta and asparagus to the sauce and stir, slowly adding reserved water to create desired consistency.

Top with Parmesan and serve hot. It’s the perfect dish to eat while reminiscing about a trip to Italy, like Inspired Redhead is doing today!