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Swimmers’ Mac and Cheese

Even the classics can be reinvented.

Mac & cheese is a classic comfort food where you wouldn’t think you had to worry about nightshades. But good, home-made mac & cheese often contain a shake or three of hot sauce, or perhaps a pinch of paprika. If there is orange American cheese or Velveeta, there’s also paprika oleoresin. And if the maker used pre-shedded cheese, there may be potato starch.

A tray of homemade mac & cheese was always the favorite pre-meet dish for my daughter’s high school swim team. The cherished recipe, passed down among parents, called for both hot sauce and American cheese. This is adapted to remove the nightshades but re-create their subtle underbite.

INGREDIENTS

For the topping: 3-4 slices hearty white sandwich bread, torn into large pieces
(Stale is better, and if you go whole grain—not actually advised by a guy who ALWAYS chooses grainier bread—you don’t really want anything too seedy or nutty.)
4 tablespoon melted butter
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

For the body:
1 pound elbow macaroni
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 (12 oz.) cans evaporated milk
1 teaspoon horseradish powder
1 teaspoon mustard powder
3 cups shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup Gouda
2 cups Monterey Jack cheese

INSTRUCTIONS

1Pulse bread, 4 tablespoons of melted butter, and Parmesan in food processor until you have a coarse crumb. Set aside.

2Boil macaroni until it reaches the near side of al dente, usually about 5 to 6 minutes. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water, then drain and rinse macaroni in colander under cold water to arrest the cooking process. Set aside.

3While the pasta is boiling, preheat oven, unless you plan to bake later.

4Now you’re going to make a simple white sauce. Melt 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat until it bubbles. Increase the heat slowly; prematurely browning the butter fundamentally changes (aka ruins) a white sauce.

5Whisk in flour and cook, stirring frequently, until mixture turns light brown, about 2 to 5 minutes. If it’s your first white sauce, hover obsessively and notice the changes. There will be a subtle change in the aroma as the flour particles fry in the butter. Again, watch the heat! Losing containment on the browning process fundamentally changes (aka ruins) the white sauce.

6Whisk in the dry horseradish and mustard, then whisk in evaporated milk, one can at a time. A word about the milk: fresh, or even re-constituted dry, is fine here. Predictably, choosing milk with higher fat content will provide a more delicious outcome. What the evaporated milk seems to provide is a little more velvety texture, so keeping it makes up a bit not using the silkier American or Velveeta. Cook until the mixture begins to simmer and is slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in the cheeses 1 cup at a time and, if it’s too thick, an appropriate amount of the reserved pasta water. When you have a smooth mixture stir in macaroni until completely coated.

7Transfer the cheesy pasta to 13 by 9 inch baking dish and top with the bread crumb mixture. Bake until it’s bubbling around the edges and the top is golden brown, around 20 or 25 minutes. Let rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

IMPROVISATIONS

If you like a little more bite to your mac and cheese, you can add more horseradish and mustard, or vary the ratios. The recipe works with one or the other, though I like the balance of the two. I once made this recipe with 2 teaspoons of each, but that was too much of a good thing. The kids still ate it—they rarely pause long enough to chew—but it had lost some of it’s dreaminess.

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