- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2005

What’s your definition of comfort food? I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of us define it as a simple-to-the-point-of-brain-dead carbohydrate surrounded by a warm, gooey sauce.

Something breakfasty, desserty or snack-skewed. This can take the form of, say, a ripe banana bathed in the world’s darkest hot fudge or perhaps a bowl of steaming oatmeal with a mound of golden brown sugar, surrounded by a moat of heavy cream.

Yet sometimes comfort food can be comprehensive enough to double as both mood therapy and dinner. As epitomized in the following recipe, it can take the form of pasta with a deeply satisfying cheese sauce and a sublimely crunchy layer of toasted bread crumbs.

How soothing can a winter meal get? It’s perfectly legal, as far as I know, especially when accompanied by a steaming pile of freshly cooked broccoli drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and lightly sprinkled with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. Hot mulled cider rounds out this meal perfectly, and comfort is yours.

But back to macaroni and cheese. Please don’t reach for that all-in-one box. You really don’t need it. I strongly encourage you to try your hand at the real thing made from scratch. Just think: Instead of simply sprinkling a bright orange, salty powder into hot macaroni, you could make a cheese sauce and combine it with plain cooked pasta, then bake or broil it in a gratin dish with a crunchy topping until bubbly. In the unlikely event you have leftovers, serve them reheated late at night, washed down with hot cocoa.

The entire project, start to cozy finish, takes only a little longer than making the stuff from a box, and it provides many times the satisfaction.

This recipe also offers an opportunity for increased cheese literacy. Try making it with different kinds of cheddar, or combine the cheddar with a Gruyere or perhaps a more exotic cheese with a peppery or smoky flavor. It’s a wonderful way to experiment and maybe pick up a few new cheeses, both for cooking and for eating.

Not-from-a-box macaroni and cheese

To streamline preparations, make the cheese sauce while the pasta boils, so they are ready at the same time.

Nonstick cooking spray

Salt

1 pound uncooked macaroni or tiny pasta shells

6 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon dry mustard

4 cups warmed milk

2 packed cups grated sharp cheddar cheese (or any favorite medium-hard cheese), plus extra for the top

2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

½ cup bread crumbs made from quality bread

Pepper, to taste

Lightly mist a standard-size gratin serving dish or 6 individual gratin dishes with nonstick cooking spray. Cook pasta in plenty of boiling, salted water until al dente. Drain thoroughly.

Meanwhile, melt butter over medium-low heat in a large saucepan. Combine flour and dry mustard, and sprinkle this mixture into the melted butter, whisking constantly until it becomes a smooth, thick paste.

Continue whisking as you drizzle in the milk. When it gets too thick for the whisk, switch to a spoon as needed and keep stirring until smooth. Cook for about 3 minutes over lowest possible heat. Sprinkle in the cheeses and stir until they melt. Meanwhile, preheat the broiler.

Add macaroni to cheeses and stir until coated. Transfer to prepared dish(es) and top with extra cheese and bread crumbs. Place dish(es) under a preheated broiler until top cheese is bubbly and bread crumbs are toasted. Serve hot. (If you are using individual dishes, place them on liner plates and remind everyone that the dishes are hot.) Makes 6 servings.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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