Homemade Mac & Cheese with Aleppo

My frequent need for comfort notwithstanding, I do not eat this dish more than a few times a year.  Aside from the mouth feel of the creamy, slightly spicy cheese sauce over the tender noodles and the toasted topping of crunchy bread crumbs, this dish has nothing going for it. Really.

Of course we all have those times when calories either don't count or don't matter, and we indulge.  Holidays.  Birthdays.  Oh, and the lesser-known but equally indulgent period of time after you have a baby when you are breastfeeding around the clock.  Maybe I made this one up. But whatever.

This week, I made this mac and cheese for some friends who had a baby girl at the beginning of the month.  (Welcome, Fiona!)  When I think back to that first month of my own experience as a mother, I cannot put into words how lovely it was to have delicious, ready-to-eat food arrive on our doorstep from our friends.  And the richer the better!  Within hours, I think Wyatt sucked all those extra calories right out of my body.  Those meals made the extreme tiredness caused by a new baby's mixed up days and nights so much more bearable.

But enough about me.  This week I was making a meal for Fiona's parents, and so I decided to do it up right with a pan of homemade mac.  One benefit of making this dish is that it also cleans out the cheese drawer in my fridge.  All those still-edible bits and scraps of cheese get used up.  Which, as we all know, means you can buy more cheese.  This is a plus, too.

I always put some type of chili powder in my cheese sauce, usually cayenne.  This time I used ground Aleppo pepper that I procured on my last visit to Big John's PFI.  I'm a total convert.  It gave the sauce a speckled, pink-ish hue and it tasted great. If you're not familiar with it, it's a red chili pepper named for a city in Syria, and it (the pepper that is) has a bit of sweetness, great chili flavor, and some mild chili heat.  Cayenne and chipotle are hotter.  Give it a try if you can find it.

Of course there are lots of ways to make a great mac and cheese.  This one happens to be fairly fast and easy, it tastes really good, and well, it's how I do it.

Homemade Macaroni and Cheese with Aleppo
significantly adapted from The Great American Macaroni and Cheese in Pasta & Co. By Request

16 ounce box good-quality dried elbow macaroni (penne works great too)
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
scant 1/2 tsp. Aleppo pepper powder (substitute 1/3 tsp. cayenne or ground chipotle peppers if you can't find it)
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
4 cups cold or room-temp milk (I use a combination of whole and non fat because that's what I keep on hand)
About one pound grated cheese (see note below)
4-5 fresh white or sour dough artisan bread, crusts removed
olive oil
1/4 c. finely grated Parmesan cheese

Boil the macaroni in well-salted water until al dente (about 4 minutes).  Drain and set aside, but don't rinse.

To make the sauce, melt the butter over medium-low heat. When it's melted, add the flour, and stir until combined thoroughly.  Let the roux cook for about a minute.  Add the pepper powder, salt and pepper.

The roux with Aleppo and ground pepper.
Turn the heat up to medium and add the milk, whisking it into the roux a bit at a time to be sure you get rid of any lumps.
The sauce should be smooth after adding the milk.
Once the milk is all added, stir until smooth.  Bring the mixture to a low simmer so it thickens.  Turn the heat down then stir in the cheeses. (Sometimes I add only the blue and Parmesan to the sauce and layer the other grated cheese with the pasta/sauce mixture in the pan.)   Remove from the heat once the cheese is melted.  Taste for salt and adjust as needed.

Add the pasta to the cheese sauce, breaking up any clumps of pasta once it's in the sauce.  Pour the pasta and sauce mixture into a buttered 9x13 casserole dish (I used two smaller dishes this time -- one to give away and one to eat).  As I mentioned, I often assemble it this way too: spread half the pasta/sauce mixture in the pan, then sprinkle 1/2 the grated cheese, then the rest of the pasta, then the rest of the grated cheese.

To make the bread crumbs, tear up the bread slices and chop into fairly small bread crumbs using a food processor.  Add the Parmesan cheese and a good glog of olive oil.  Stir it all together and sprinkle liberally on the top of the mac and cheese.  More crumbs means more toasty crunch in every bite.
Ready for the oven.
Bake uncovered at 350 degrees (or 400 if you are impatient) for about 30-50 minutes, until bubbly around the edges and the top has browned nicely.  (If you make it ahead, drizzle about 3/4 cup of milk over the dish before you bake it.) Consume.

Note about cheeses:  I use a sharp, aged cheddar for at least half of my cheese.  This time, I used about 17 ounces of grated cheese, three quarters of it was a combination of Tillamook sharp cheddar and Beecher's Flagship cheddar.  The rest was whole milk mozzarella, Grana Padano (Parmigiano Reggiano is equally nice), and about 2-3 ounces of Gorgonzola.  I always include a bit of blue cheese because it adds complexity to the flavor, and in my experience, blue cheese haters 1) like the result and 2) can't tell its there.  Other cheese I usually include (but didn't have this time) are Fontina (makes it especially creamy) and Jack/Pepper Jack.


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