Easy Mac and Cheese

It’s not what you think. I know that it looks like I’ve got a plate full of Velveeta Shells and Cheese, but it’s not! What’s really on the plate is the easiest and maybe creamiest homemade mac and cheese I’ve ever made. I consider myself to be somewhat of a mac and cheese connoisseur, I’ve made countless recipes, some that were amazing and some that were big fat flops. I was worried that this was going to be one of those flops. It just seemed way too easy, like 1-step up from the box kind easy. But this was no flop. It is the great, easy, weeknight answer to your “How can I make mac and cheese for a side dish without it taking longer than the main course” question.

Of course I upped the cheese to milk ratio a little bit because I’m cheese crazy and I’m so glad I did. I used a Medium Cheddar, but the possibilities are endless. Half Medium Cheddar half Vermont White. Half Colby Jack half Pepper Jack. Half Cheddar half Jack. See where I’m going with this? The more significant the cheese is on it’s own the more significant the taste will be in the mac and cheese. The Medium Cheddar resulted in a mild, smooth, and creamy mac.

Easy Mac and Cheese

(Adapted from Evil Shenanigans, originally from Cooks Illustrated)

Ingredients
16 oz box pasta, I used small shells
2 Tbsp butter
12 oz can evaporated milk
2 egg, beaten
1 tsp dry mustard powder
1/4 tsp red pepper optional
1/8-1/4 tsp Black Pepper
2 cups freshly grated cheddar cheese*
Salt to taste

*Sorry kids, I just don’t think the packaged pre-grated cheese will work for this. It’s coated in stuff to keep it from sticking together and therefore, won’t melt well.

Directions

Boil pasta shells 1-2 minutes short of the suggested time on the box (No one wants mushy watery mac and cheese). In the meantime, combine the evaporated milk, eggs, mustard powder, and pepper in a large measuring cup and whisk together.

Drain the pasta in a colander and then return it right back to the hot pan. Reduce heat to low. Add the butter and stir until melted.

Carefully add the milk egg combination to the pan, stirring constantly to avoid making scrambled eggs. Stir for 3-4 minutes or until it starts to thicken. Add the cheese in 4-5 increments, making sure that each addition is completely melted before adding the next.

Serve immediately. We had ours with grilled steak and small salad and it was the perfect meal.

Classic Lasagna

Some of the things I missed the most while I was in China were cheese, bread, and dessert. I got my fill of good vegetables, meat, and seafood, but nothing quite filled the hole in my heart (or stomach, in this case) that cheese and carbs left. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that my first meals back were loaded. Driving back from the airport we even made an emergency pit stop at In-N-Out Burger. Double double mustard fried with grilled onions and a Neapolitan shake? Yes please! Next up on my must-have-soon list was an over the top cheesy pasta dish, and lasagna fit the bill perfectly.

I’ve posted a vegetable lasagna recipe already, but this craving was for the classic version. So I whipped up a classic lasagna and enjoyed every last bite of the delicious cheesy, carb loaded, meat filled goodness. Then, yesterday I read online that July 29th is National Lasagna Day. Perfect! I bumped this recipe up the line so you’ll be prepared to make your own for the special day.

Classic Lasagna
(Developed over the years by me)
Ingredients
1 box no-boil lasagna noodles

1 15-oz container of Ricotta cheese
1/4 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg
1/2 cup frozen spinach, thawed and excess moisture squeezed out
4-5 fresh basil leaves, julienned (or 1 tsp dry basil but I really recommend finding some fresh!)
1/2 tsp salt
pinch of black pepper

1 lb Italian sausage (I used sweet, but also like spicy)
2 tbsp tomato paste
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp dry basil
1 tsp dry oregano
1 tsp dry parsley
1/4 tsp dry rosemary
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper
pinch of red pepper flakes
1 15-oz can diced tomatoes
1 15-oz can tomato sauce
1/3-1/2 cup dry red wine

1 16-oz ball of fresh mozzarella, shredded (to equal about 2 cups)*
1/2 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese

*As with many things, I think that real fresh mozzarella is key. Of course it’s really up to you, but I don’t think a block of Kraft mozzarella will cut it! You can find real balls of fresh mozzarella in the specialty cheese section of any well stocked grocery store. If you have trouble shredding it you can cut it into slices. Or do what I do it and hand it to the nearest strong man and make them do it! 🙂

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large skillet, brown and crumble the Italian sausage. When the sausage is cooked through and browned add the tomato paste and garlic. Cook for 30 seconds or until garlic is fragrant. Stir to coat the sausage with the tomato paste. Season with dry basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes and cook for 1 more minute. Stir in the diced tomatoes and tomato sauce and bring to a simmer. Add the red wine and continue to simmer for 10 minutes.

While the meat sauce is simmering, combine the ingredients for the ricotta filling in a medium sized bowl.

Spread 1/3 cup of meat sauce in the bottom of a 9×13 pan. Then lay out 4 noodles, slightly overlapping. Make 3 sets of layers in the following order:

  1. Noodles
  2. 1/3 of the Ricotta filling
  3. 1/4 of the Meat sauce
  4. 1/4 of the Mozzarella and Parmesan cheese

After the 3rd group of layers, top off the lasagna with another layer of noodles, the last of the sauce, and the rest of the shredded cheese.

Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes. (I also gave mine 2 minutes under the broiler to make the cheese a deeper golden brown)

Serve with a green salad and garlic bread. (Yes mine is totally Texas Toast, not homemade or gourmet but Jesse loves it and it was fast!)

Just 2 More Weeks!

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In just 2 short weeks I’ll be jet setting around the world! I simply can not wait. I’ve already started setting things aside and this weekend I’ll probably start packing my suitcase. Never in my life did I think I would be able to spend 6 weeks in another country, let alone China! Of course the very best part of it all is that I finally get to see Jesse again, that week will mark 2 months apart for us. 🙁

I can’t really decide if it’s easier or harder to be apart now that I’m in San Diego. When I was in Ohio I felt like I was more disconnected, even though we would be apart anyway, China still somehow seemed like and even bigger step. Here, I still feel connected and somehow strangely a part of it. But of course in Ohio I had my friends and family to help me through too. I can’t tell you how many times Michelle saved me with a bottle of wine and girl talk. That sort of thing is probably one of the things I miss the most about Ohio. I really had some awesome friends there and my family was always there for me.


On a less serious note, one other thing I miss about Ohio is buffalo wings. (are buffalo wings? either way it doesn’t sound right, help me out grammar police!) Yes, there are wings here but I guess I grew used to Buffalo Wild Wings, or B-Dubbs, and now that’s the flavor and texture I crave. Lately I’ve been craving a chicken tender wrap, sub pico for tomato, with spicy garlic sauce (and extra on the side) and a side of tortilla chips from B-dubbs, like nobody’s business. In all honesty there is a B-Dubbs in Huntington Beach but that’s a pretty far drive for one measly chicken tender wrap. So when I saw this recipe for Buffalo Chicken Mac and Cheese, I thought maybe, just maybe, I could satisfy my buffalo tooth. (Like a sweet tooth only different)

Yeah, you’re going to need to try this. Like now. The spice, the cheese, the creaminess. Yum. Yum. Yum. I used 2 recipes for inspiration pulling a few ideas from each. And, because I like to use as few pots and pans as possible (Jesse will tell you that’s a lie, but I said I LIKE to, not that I always do), I tried to streamline the recipes.

Buffalo Chicken Mac and Cheese
(Adapted from Foodnetwork and 1 Fine Cookie)

2 chicken breasts – marinade in 1 cup buttermilk and 2 Tbsp Frank’s Red Hot overnight*
1 lb elbow macaroni noodles, cooked and drained(shells would work too)
4 Tbsp butter, divided
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1/3 cup celery, chopped (about 2 large stalks)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp dry mustard
2 Tbsp flour
1 cup 2% milk
1 cup half-half
1 cup sour cream
3/4 cups Franks Buffalo Red Hot (or other buffalo sauce), divided
1 pound cheddar cheese, shredded**
8 ounces pepper jack cheese, shredded
1 cup panko bread crumbs
2 Tbsp butter
1/3 cup crumbled blue cheese
2 Tbsp fresh parsley, minced or 2 tsp dry parsley
Blue Cheese dressing for drizzling over top

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a grill pan over high heat, grill the chicken breasts until the juices run clear, about 5 minutes on each side depending on thickness of chicken. Chop the chicken into bite size chunks, cover to keep warm and set aside.

Melt 2 Tbsp butter in a dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and celery and cook for 4 minutes, or until the celery is soft and the onions are translucent. Add the garlic, last 2 Tbsp of butter and 1/4 cup of Franks, stir to coat the celery and onions. Sprinkle in the dry mustard and flour and stir well with a whisk. When the flour is fully combined, pour in the milk and half and half, whisking constantly. Then whisk in the remaining hot sauce and sour cream. Bring to a light simmer, continuing to whisk. Stir in the cheese until smooth and melted. Add the chicken and stir to combine. (at this point you can sing to yourself, just keep stirring, just keep stirring, stirring, stirring). Remove from heat.

In a small bowl melt 2 Tbsp butter. Add the panko, blue cheese, and parsley and stir.

Sprinkle the panko mixture over top of the mac and cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes.

Drizzle with blue cheese dressing to serve.

* I liked the idea Jasmin had for infusing the chicken with a subtle hot sauce taste by marinating over night. But I was way too lazy to bread the chicken and fry it in addition to all the stirring I had to do. So I just grilled it. The overnight soak made the chicken incredibly moist with just a hint of spice. You could take the even easier way out and use left over chicken or shredded rotisserie chicken. I won’t judge ya if you’re lazy!

**I always recommend shredding your own cheese, from the block, for mac and cheese.

The best mac and cheese you’ll ever put in your mouth….

** This post was imported as a part of my top 30 from my old blog – What’s Cooking in the Orange Kitchen**

Was that title too long? 🙂 LOL. In all seriousness, this is really the best mac and cheese I have ever had. I found it on one of my all time favorite blogs Pioneer Woman Cooks. I’ll admit, I’m in love with Ree. Her blog is full of witty commentary and informative cooking entries, plus she has the cutest family ever. If you haven’t had the pleasure of viewing her blog before please go check it out, you’ll be hooked!

PW’s Spicy Mac and Cheese
(source: Pioneer Woman Cooks, my changes are noted in bold)

Ingredients
4 cups cooked macaroni or cavatappi
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 to 1/2 finely diced red onion
Equal amount diced red bell pepper
1 finely diced jalapeno
1 4 oz can chopped green chilies
1 cup frozen corn
2 to 3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup half and half
1 generous cup grated Pepperjack cheese (I sometimes use half pepperjack and half mild cheddar)
2 Tbsp butter
Salt
Pepper

Directions

Boil pasta until al dente. In a large skillet, add olive oil and saute garlic and vegetables over medium heat for a couple of minutes. Add in canned chilies and stir around, then turn off heat. Drain pasta and add it to skillet. Pour on cream, add cheese, then add salt and pepper to taste and stir gently. At the end, add 2 tablespoons butter and stir again. Check seasonings and serve.