Growing up, macaroni and cheese was a staple, and as far as my dad, my sister, and I were concerned, my mom owned the patent on the only real recipe for mac and cheese. Her mac and cheese was simple but delicious, consisting of elbow macaroni, sharp cheddar cheese, milk, margarine, salt, and pepper only - no fancy sauces, no crunchy toppings, and certainly no onions. Just as securely in place at the family dinner table, just in case anyone ever considered improvising with mac and cheese, was the cautionary tale of the mac and cheese that Nana, my mom's mom, made for my dad and I while my mom was in the hospital having my sister. Nana had added onions.
Now, granted, Nana, who supported her family before it was fashionable for women and was ahead of her time in intellectual ways, was squarely a woman of the fifties in the kitchen. She believed that vegetables and fruits were better when they came from a can. So when she made the famous mac and cheese with onions, she didn't sauté a fresh onion and slip it into the mix, where it might not have been noticed. Instead, Nana cracked open a can of fried onions, the ones that fill huge displays during the holidays, alongside the green beans, and she stirred those shriveled, salty sticks into the mac and cheese. She probably poured a generous layer over the top as well, thinking that she was being hip by following some holiday-casserole recipe highlighting the importance of the crunchy topping. Needless to say, the crunchy onions were not a hit with my dad or with fussy, two-year-old me, and we've been telling the story ever since.
Years later, more out of lack of time than preference, I became an Annie's eater. When Lee moved in with me, he discovered that, not only was I making my Annie's with soy milk, I was also stirring in black olives, or tomatoes, or sautéed onions and mushrooms, or steamed broccoli. I'm more of a mac-and-cheese purist, he told me, explaining that real milk and extra cheese were the only add-ins that he used. And, seriously, we should be making mac and cheese from scratch, he continued, going on about the injustice of paying so much for packaged cheese powder. At which point I gave him the look that said, when I rescued you, you were living on frozen food and hot fries. So we compromised. I adjusted to eating Annie's with real milk and grated cheddar, and Lee got used to finding sautéed mushrooms or steamed broccoli in his shells and cheddar.
But then I had some time and some extra milk, and I decided that I wanted to make mac and cheese from scratch. I wanted to make a fairly pure mac and cheese, based on milk, cheese, butter, and pasta, and lacking the cups of assorted vegetables that get added to modern, "healthy" mac and cheese recipes. I read through many recipes and eventually found a Baked Macaroni and Cheese recipe that I liked as a starting place. I modified that recipe and made a batch, which was delicious but, well, I wanted to add something to it. So I tried a different pasta and other cheeses and baked another batch for some friends with a newborn. That batch was even more delicious, but, again, I wanted to add something. That's when I saw huge, beautiful leeks at the co-op grocery and realized that I wanted to add leeks and garlic to my mac and cheese.
I made the casserole on Sunday and we've been living on it ever since, inhaling every bowlful. So my mac and cheese isn't simple, and it includes non-family-approved ingredients, and it isn't even macaroni, but it is delicious and satisfying.
Fusilli and Cheese with Leeks
1 pound fusilli pasta (or other small pasta, such as shells, elbows, or penne)
2 T butter
3 large leeks
8 cloves of garlic, minced
fresh cracked black pepper
3 T butter
3 T flour
1 T mustard powder
3 cups whole milk
2 bay leaves
1/4 t chili powder
8 oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated
4 oz Parmesan cheese, grated
2 oz Gruyere or Swiss cheese, grated
1 t sea salt
fresh cracked black pepper
2 T butter
1 cup breadcrumbs
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Bring at least 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Cook the pasta according to the package instructions, but remove the pasta from the boiling water slightly before it is fully cooked. (Test it to be sure - the pasta should be almost done but not quite cooked through, because it will be baked later.) Pour the pasta into a colander and run cool water over it to bring it to room temperature. Set aside.
While waiting for the pasta water to boil, wash the leeks. Remove and discard the root end and the outermost layer of the leek. Slice the leek into thick coins, starting from the white end. At the green end of the leek, remove and discard the course, green parts. Continue slicing the lighter green parts.
In a large skillet, melt 2 T butter. Add the sliced leeks. Sauté on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the leeks are soft, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for another 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
In a medium sauce pan, melt 3 T butter. Whisk in the flour and mustard powder, making a paste that is free of lumps. Continue to whisk for a few minutes or until the flour is heated through. Add the milk, bay leaves, and chili powder. Heat, stirring almost continuously to prevent scalding, for about 10 minutes, or until the mixture begins to thicken slightly. Turn the heat down to low and stir in the cheeses, reserving about 1/3 of the cheddar for later. Stir in the salt and season with fresh cracked black pepper to taste.
Combine the pasta, leeks, and cheese sauce in a large pot. Stir to distribute the sauce and pasta evenly. Pour the mixture into a 2- or 3-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle the remaining cheddar cheese over the pasta.
To prepare the topping, melt 2 T butter in a small skillet. Add the breadcrumbs and stir to coat them with butter. Spread the breadcrumbs over the top of the pasta.
Bake uncovered for about 30 minutes or until bubbling hot throughout. Remove from the oven and allow the pasta to sit for 5 minutes before serving.
Makes 6-8 servings, and is great as leftovers.