Ten Times Better than Kraft Dinner

Yesterday, I let you all in on my newest passion: good food. Well, the two best ways for me to share that passion seem to be sharing food and sharing recipes. Since I can't pass a plate through the computer screen, I'll do the next best thing - share a recipe.

Since mac 'n' cheese was the dish that finally convinced me of the superiority of fresh ingredients and deliciousness of cooking from scratch, it seems appropriate that it be the first recipe I share here. So, here goes!

1 lb. pasta (any kind you like, but fun shapes are always better)
2 cups shredded cheese (2-3 kinds with complementary flavors, not pre-shredded - cheddar and monterey jack are good ones to start with)
3 tbsp unsalted butter
3 tbsp flour
1-2 cups milk or cream
salt (anything but table salt...blech)
freshly ground pepper (white if you don't like black flecks in your cheese sauce)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Generously salt the water and add the pasta. Stir to avoid clumping. Pay attention to how much time your pasta needs to cook. Overcooked pasta is one of the worst parts of boxed mac 'n' cheese. When it is finished cooking, drain the pasta, but do not rinse it.

As the pasta cooks, melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When it's completely melted and bubbly, add the flour, some salt and pepper, and a dash of nutmeg (This is called roux, pronounced "roo." All the best cooking words are French). Stir continuously to ensure that the flour doesn't burn.

After about a minute, slowly add the first cup of milk. Using a whisk will help you avoid lumps in the sauce. When the milk is fully incorporated and bubbly, slowly add the cheese, a handful at a time. Stir in a figure eight pattern to avoid slopping the sauce over the edges. If the sauce gets too thick, add more milk. If it's too thin, let the heat work its magic of evaporation.

Taste the cheese sauce to determine whether it needs more seasoning. Add salt and pepper as needed. Some folks like to add mustard for a little tang. Hot sauce and garlic are more my style. When the sauce is finished to your taste, toss it with the pasta and enjoy. This amount will probably serve 4-6 people (more as a side dish).

Once you master this basic recipe (a matter of making it once or twice), experiment. One of my favorite variations includes onions, carrots and celery that have been sauteed in butter (a.k.a. - mirapoix, another fancy French cooking word). Another involves the addition of chopped ham or bacon. When I was working as a nanny, I would add a bag of mixed vegetables to the boiling water three or four minutes before the pasta was ready and brown some hamburger. Mix it all together and you've got the most "incredible hamburger helper" ever. I've never tried it, but I imagine various nuts and fruit could be delicious depending on the cheeses you use and your level of culinary adventurousness.

The point is, once you've got a recipe under your belt, you own it and can change it however you like. Go crazy, people!
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