Macaroni & cheese, please

Get those elbows on the table — or maybe the penne, farfalle or radiatore — with all sorts of flavors

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Start a pot of pasta water on the stove, and it boils down to this: You can make macaroni and cheese 365 days a year and never do it the same way twice.

With a nearly infinite array of potential components, this most American of comfort foods also can be Mexican, Indian, Italian, Greek, French or any cuisine in which cheese is a given. Even a modestly stocked pantry allows you to grab and get going. Flour and butter become a roux, the roux becomes a béchamel, the béchamel becomes a cheese sauce, and dinner is not far away.

There’s really no reason not to make it yourself, although these days you can also get your mac-and-cheese fix in a slew of restaurants, even at the high end; and a growing list of areas are home to a recent phenomenon, the mac-and-cheese restaurant.

Robert Dunn, a Connecticut entrepreneur, opened Macdaddy’s Macaroni and Cheese Bar in affluent Monroe, Conn., 70 miles outside Manhattan, last July and says sales have been “just unbelievable. … I go through a thousand pounds of macaroni a week.” He just sold a franchise for 10 locations in Texas, plans three more in Connecticut, says he is “close to making a deal” for five stores in California.

The self-taught cook, 42, says he used his previous experience at a failed fine-dining restaurant he owned in developing mac-and-cheese recipes, and has more than 20 permutations on the menu. “It’s so easy to make this stuff taste great,” he says. One recipe, for example, is basically a pasta version of a mushroom risotto he sold at his old restaurant.

Home cooks can take that same approach, turning favorite flavor combinations into cheesy casseroles. Chicken, celery, blue cheese and wing sauce make Buffalo chicken mac and cheese. Corned beef, sauerkraut and rye bread crumbs make Reuben mac and cheese. Caramelized onions and Gruyère evoke French onion soup. And so on. It’s a far cry from the days when Mom stirred hot dog slices or canned tuna into the mix.

It’s also a far cry from what mac-and-cheeseheads refer to as “the blue box.” Kraft introduced its boxed mac and cheese in 1937, near the end of the Great Depression, and it remains the dominent store-bought brand today, despite inroads made by Annie’s Homegrown and other competitors. (On Facebook: 727,469 “Likes” for Kraft, 219,316 for Annie’s.) But even Kraft has evolved; its products now include flavors such as Sharp Cheddar and Bacon, Cheesy Alfredo and Extreme Cheese Explosion.

By the time Kraft entered the game, macaroni and cheese had lost its luster as the high-society dish it once was. Thomas Jefferson encountered the fashionable food in Europe and is said to have brought it back to America. Just what he brought back is a matter of debate. Philadelphia-based chef Walter Staib, who hosts a public television show on America’s culinary beginnings, theorizes that the pasta was “macaroni, maybe some kind of penne or pappardelle,” and that the cheese was Gruyère.

“Jose Andres will disagree with that,” he says with a smile.

Sure enough, at Andres’ journey into U.S. culinary history, the America Eats Tavern in Washington, vermicelli is broiled with butter and Parmesan cheese in a dish the celebrity chef has called “the oldest way of making cheese with pasta ever recorded in America.”

Either of the old ways is fine, but now we have the culinary resources to make mac and cheese in endless creative combinations: with all of the pastas, cheeses, meats, seafood, fruits, vegetables and other ingredients a supermarket (or farmers market) has to offer.

Mushroom and Spinach Macaroni and Cheese

Makes 5 to 6 side-dish servings or 4 to 5 main-course servings

Mushrooms and spinach add a healthful component to a basic mac and cheese. White or cremini mushrooms or shiitake caps make good choices; if you don’t have spinach on hand, cooked, chopped kale or chard can be substituted. In short, this is a flexible recipe. Adapted from a recipe in the May-June 2004 issue of Cooks Illustrated.

For the topping

3 slices good-quality white sandwich bread, torn into rough pieces

2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut in 4 equal pieces

For the pasta and cheese

½ pound dried elbow macaroni or other small, shaped pasta

1½ teaspoons plus ½ teaspoon salt

2½ tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot

3 tablespoons flour

¾ teaspoon powdered mustard

⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

2½ cups whole, low-fat or nonfat milk, warmed or at room temperature

4 ounces fontina or Monterey jack cheese, shredded (1 cup)

4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (1 cup)

½ pound mushrooms, sliced and sautéed (see headnote)

5 ounces chopped, cooked spinach, excess moisture squeezed out (see headnote)

For the topping: Combine bread and butter in a food processor; pulse 10 to 15 times to yield coarse crumbs.

For the pasta and cheese: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Have an 8-by-8-inch glass or ceramic baking dish at hand. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Add the macaroni and 1½ teaspoons of the salt; cook, following the package directions, and pour into a colander to drain.

Heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat until it foams; add the shallot and cook for 1 minute, stirring. Add the flour, powdered mustard and cayenne pepper, if using; stir well to combine, continuing until the mixture becomes fragrant and deepens in color, about 1 minute, then gradually stir in the milk. Bring to a boil, constantly scraping the bottom of the pan to prevent scorching; this step will take 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the temperature of the milk. (The mixture must reach a full boil to thicken.)

Reduce the heat to medium or medium-low so that the mixture is barely bubbling around the edges; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has thickened to the consistency of heavy cream.

Remove from the heat. Stir in the cheeses and the remaining ½ teaspoon of salt until the cheeses are completely melted. Stir in the cooked pasta, mushrooms and spinach.

Spread the mixture in an even layer in the baking dish. Sprinkle evenly with topping. Bake until the mixture is bubbling and the crumbs are golden brown, about 20 minutes. (If the topping appears to be browning too quickly, cover loosely with aluminum foil.)

Cool for about 5 minutes before serving.

Per serving (based on 5 main-course servings, using low-fat milk): 580 calories, 26 g protein, 56 g carbohydrates, 29 g fat, 17 g saturated fat, 85 mg cholesterol, 740 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

Classic Macaroni and Cheese

Makes 10 to 12 side-dish servings or 8 to 10 main-course servings

Not the richest, not the spiciest, not the sharpest, not the most outrageous: This is just-plain-delicious, no-frills macaroni and cheese, great on its own but also happy to welcome additions. The recipe can be halved and baked in an 8- or 9-inch square casserole dish. You can also bake the full recipe in two smaller dishes with different add-ins in each one. Adapted from the May-June 2004 issue of Cook’s Illustrated.

For the topping

5 slices good-quality white bread, torn into rough pieces (about 4½ cups)

4 tablespoons (½ stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 8 equal pieces

For the pasta and cheese

1 pound dried elbow macaroni or other small, shaped pasta

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

6 tablespoons flour

1½ teaspoons powdered mustard

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

5 cups whole, low-fat or nonfat milk, warmed or at room temperature

8 ounces Monterey jack cheese, shredded (2 cups)

8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (2 cups)

For the topping: Combine the bread and butter in a food processor; pulse 10 to 15 times to yield a coarse crumb mixture.

For the pasta and cheese: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Have a 9-by-13-inch glass or ceramic baking dish at hand.

Boil 4 quarts of water in a large pot over high heat. Add the macaroni and 1 tablespoon of the salt; cook, following the package directions, and pour into a colander to drain.

Heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat until it foams. Add the flour, powdered mustard and cayenne pepper, if using; stir well to combine, continuing until the mixture becomes fragrant and deepens in color, about 1 minute, then gradually stir in the milk. Bring to a boil, constantly scraping the bottom of the pan to prevent scorching; this step will take 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the temperature of the milk. (The mixture must reach a full boil to fully thicken.)

Reduce the heat to medium or medium-low so that the mixture is barely bubbling around the edges; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it has thickened to the consistency of heavy cream.

Remove from the heat. Add the cheeses and the remaining teaspoon of salt, stirring until the cheeses are completely melted. Stir in the cooked pasta.

Spread the mixture in an even layer in the baking dish. Sprinkle evenly with topping. Bake until the mixture is bubbling and the crumbs are golden brown, about 20 minutes. (If the topping appears to be browning too quickly, cover loosely with aluminum foil.) Cool 5 minutes before serving.

Per serving (based on 10 main-course servings, using low-fat milk): 550 calories, 23 g protein, 52 g carbohydrates, 28 g fat, 17 g saturated fat, 80 mg cholesterol, 640 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar