- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2008

(AP) There’s nothing quite as comforting as homemade macaroni and cheese, all creamy inside and crunchy on top.

Of course, traditional versions of this classic usually call for at least 2 cups of cheese, a stick of butter and whole milk or cream. That might be comforting, but it’s hardly healthy.

Today’s recipe for a lighter mac and cheese is every bit as satisfying, with just about a third of the fat. Making that work is all a matter of knowing where to cut the fat and where to keep it.

The sauce, for example, begins with a base of fat-free milk (rather than whole) mixed with flour. For the cheese, though, we stick with full-fat extra-sharp cheddar, which has tons more flavor than reduced-fat varieties and preserves the “cheesiness” of the dish. The quantity of cheese is cut in half.

A few teaspoons of Dijon mustard and a pinch ground ancho chili pepper are added to further intensify the flavor and make up for reducing the cheese and other fats.

Ancho chili works nicely because it has a sweet, paprikalike flavor and moderate heat, but you can substitute cayenne or any other ground chili pepper, if you prefer.

To add some creaminess while cutting the fat even further, the rest of the cheese and all of the butter in the sauce are replaced with 2 percent-fat cottage cheese that has been pureed in a blender or food processor.

Using a little oil, instead of butter, combined with plain dry bread crumbs and a flavorful grated cheese makes a much lighter crunchy topping. Using a high-quality hard cheese such as Parmesan will give you more flavor for your money (and calories).

Whole-grain elbow macaroni adds important fiber and other nutrients.

Macaroni and cheese light

From start to finish: 1 hour 10 minutes (25 minutes active).

8 ounces whole-grain elbow macaroni

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 cup fat-free milk (divided)

1 cup grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground ancho chili pepper

1½ cups 2 percent cottage cheese

3 tablespoons unseasoned bread crumbs

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat an 8-inch-square baking dish with cooking spray.

Bring a large saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook according to package instructions. Drain and rinse with cold water, then set aside.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together flour and 2 tablespoons of the milk. In a large saucepan, heat the remaining milk over medium heat until steaming.

Gradually whisk a few tablespoons of the hot milk into the milk-flour mixture, then whisk this mixture back into the saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the sauce is smooth and slightly thickened, 1 minute.Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in cheddar cheese, mustard, salt, black pepper, ancho chili pepper and nutmeg. Set aside.

In a food processor or blender, puree the cottage cheese until very smooth. Stir into the sauce. Stir in the cooked macaroni and spoon the mixture into the prepared baking dish.

In a small bowl, stir together bread crumbs and olive oil until well-blended. Stir in the Parmesan and sprinkle the mixture over the macaroni and cheese. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until browned on top and bubbling. Makes 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 465 calories; 15 g fat (8 g saturated); 37 mg cholesterol; 55 g carbohydrate; 31 g protein; 5 g fiber; 896 mg sodium.

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