the ultimate comfort food: macaroni and cheese

Macaroni and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. Warm, gooey, cheesy - it is a kid favorite, a crowd favorite, and definitely still an adult favorite of mine. As we approach the end of the cold winter season, when heavy stews and casseroles are most popular, I thought it only appropriate to pay homage to this classic dish.

Supposedly the first modern recipe for macaroni and cheese was documented by writer Elizabeth Raffald in her 1769 book "The Experienced English Housekeeper." Raffald's recipe was for a Béchamel sauce with cheddar cheese, which is mixed with macaroni, sprinkled with Parmesan, and baked until bubbly and golden. In American cuisine, the first formal recipe called "macaroni and cheese" appeared in the 1824 cookbook written by Mary Randolph, titled "The Virginia Housewife." The recipe centered on three ingredients - macaroni pasta, cheese, and butter, all layered together and baked in the oven.

Over the years, many regional variations have emerged. Some recipes include multiple cheese varieties, others are topped with breadcrumbs and even Ritz Cracker bits to create a crunchy top, and others include bits of local or seasonal meat and vegetables blended with the pasta. The modern packaged mixes, including Kraft and Annie's, are probably the most familiar. I recall many meals growing up involving the blue box and orange powdered sauce base - and nothing was more delicious!

As an adult chef, I like to experiment with different ingredients and techniques, but it is hard to mess with a good thing. This macaroni and cheese recipe includes a few twists. I blended some spring vegetable ingredients - asparagus, green peas, and sauteed leeks - to lighten the dish. I also used orecchiette pasta, which is shaped like a small ear and is perfect for catching the extra sauce, instead of the traditional elbow shape that you see in the Kraft box. And of course, a bit of pancetta for some extra fat, flavor, and salt!

However, for the sauce technique, I stayed traditional: white cheddar Béchamel sauce mixed with pasta, then baked in the oven. The sauce starts with a roux of butter and flour. The best ratio, from researching many different recipes, seems to be 2:2:1 - or 2 tablespoons of butter, 2 tablespoons of flour, to 1 cup of milk. If you are making this dish for a crowd, I would suggest scaling up to roughly 3 cups of sauce, which means 6 tablespoons of butter and 6 tablespoons of flour to start. Once the flour has dissolved into the butter, you slowly add warm milk to create a creamy sauce. The sauce should cook for 6 to 8 minutes, or until thickened, and then you can add the shredded cheese, salt and pepper to season.

I hope you enjoy this ultimate comfort food - perfect for a crowd or simply for yourself (and you will benefit from fantastic leftovers for the week)!