That tangle of gooey, cheesy, smoky baked macaroni that you see there just might be my husband’s favorite thing about me. It allows me to wield an influence over him that, frankly, borders on unfair. He practically swoons when I offer to make if for him. And, I say “for him,” intentionally. While I like pasta as much as the next gal, I don’t have the weak-kneed reaction to oozy baked mac that so many others (Kevin clearly included) do. So, I typically make this for him when I’m going to be out of town or just out for the night.
I mean, the whole absence makes the heart grow fonder thing is great and all. But when mere absence alone won’t do, I can always rest assured that a saran-wrapped dish of ready-to-be-baked-off mac in the fridge will do the trick.
(Click “more” for the rest of the story, more photos & the recipe.)
This baked mac is a version of one of the first recipes I ever created: homemade, stove top mac-and-cheese. It was truly a recipe borne out of necessity. You see, I babysat for a family in Evanston throughout college and, one fateful Saturday night, I found myself with two hungry kids demanding Mac-n-Cheese and a pantry completely bereft of the signature navy blue box they had in mind. So, I grabbed a box of pasta, shredded up some cheddar and created what the kids affectionately came to call “Kristin’s Pasta.” (As in, I never ever babysat for them again without them requesting it.)
Kristin’s Pasta has evolved over the years and has now morphed into this smoky, three-cheese, whole-wheat version, capped with a crunchy panko crust. Truth be told, I’ve never reduced it to a recipe before. And I think it’s because it’s a very adaptable recipe. Sometimes I leave out tomatoes, sometimes I add in flecks of bacon and the cheeses I’ve used have run the gamut (generally involving cheddar along with the other leftover nubs in our cheese drawer). So, I’ll include the recipe for this version below, but go crazy with modifications.
Smoky Baked Mac
1 pound dried whole wheat tubular pasta
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
2 springs thyme
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 1/2 cups milk
1 cup shredded cheddar
1/2 cup shredded smoked mozzarella
1/2 cup shredded gruyere
1 14-ounce can fire-roasted chopped tomatoes, drained
1/3 cup whole wheat panko
2 tablespoons parmesan
Grease a large baking dish. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Cook the pasta in boiling water until the pasta is just shy of al dente. Drain the pasta and set aside.
Over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a large saucepan. Once the butter is melted, stir in the flour with a whisk and cook for about a minute. Slowly whisk in the milk. Reduce the heat and add the garlic, thyme and paprika; simmer until the liquid thickens. Remove from heat and, using a slotted spoon, fish out the garlic clove and thyme springs. Next, add the cheese, stirring with the whisk until the mixture is smooth. Add the cooked pasta and drained tomatoes into the saucepan and toss to combine. (Note: if your saucepan isn’t big enough, use a large bowl). Transfer the pasta into the prepared baking dish.
In the microwave, melt the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Toss the panko crumbs in the melted butter and sprinkle them on top of the pasta. Sprinkle the parmesan on top of the panko.
Bake for 30 minutes, or until browned and bubbly.