Observe Lent with sinfully rich designer mac-n-cheese

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On cold winter nights, nothing kindles the soul like a belly full of warm comfort food. At our house, that means macaroni and cheese. With the onset of Lent, the Christian season of meat deprivation, the quintessential American favorite takes on an added dimension for folks who like to connect with religious traditions, even in a small way.

As food writers, my wife Jean and I have “eaten professionally” for 25 years, but we’ve never kicked the Kraft habit learned in our mothers’ Milwaukee kitchens. Our challenge: Make America’s favorite comfort food a little more interesting.

Over the years our tastes have changed, even if our addiction to the comfort dish hasn’t. Our original mac and cheese made from bleached-flour pasta was replaced by whole-wheat pasta that eventually took the penne form. The little grooved tubes added texture, while the larger cut made for a more filling “mouth-feel,” as winemakers like to say.

American cheese became cheddar, but after meeting Sid Cook, we knew it couldn’t be just any cheddar. The owner and master cheesemaker of Carr Valley Cheese, Cook recommended mixing his 10-year-old cheddar, handcrafted in small vats, with his Ba-Ba Blue, an award-winning sheep’s milk blue cheese. The cheddar’s sharp report balanced with blue cheese’s piquancy, making each bite a varied delight.

Every addiction is characterized by increasing levels of abuse, and our jonesing for designer mac and cheese is no different. In an attempt to moderate our growing addiction, Jean uncovered a Weight Watcher recipe that added fresh or canned tomatoes to the dish. Skeptical, we nevertheless tried the addition. We were delighted to find that tomatoes’ acidity complemented the sweetness of the cheese. The fruit’s pulp also varied the texture, while its bright red color added visual appeal to the dish.

We were hooked all over again.

Then we heard about the wonderful properties of panko bread crumbs and, as if the pasta itself didn’t provide enough starch, we started sprinkling the dish with our favorite panko flavor (there are several to choose from) before baking. The result was a delightful, slightly rugged crust riding atop the softly bubbling mass of molten cheese.

It’s become our mission to keep refining America’s favorite comfort food, and we’re keen to try a recipe we ran across that mixes in crimini and shitake mushrooms and white truffle oil. But that’s a story for another Lenten season.

Jean’s Designer Mac and Cheese

4 cups skim milk

2 bay leaves

½ tsp. nutmeg

4 T. cornstarch

1 lb. Carr Valley 10-year old cheddar

1 cup grated Carr Valley Ba-Ba Bleu cheese

2 fresh whole tomatoes or 

2 15-oz cans diced tomatoes

1 lb. penne pasta or large pasta shells

Panko bread crumbs to taste

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2. Cook pasta according to package directions. Rinse in cool water and set aside. 

3. Put skim milk in a saucepan. Whisk in the cornstarch until smooth. Add the bay leaves and nutmeg. Heat over medium heat while stirring constantly (to avoid burning the milk) until mixture thickens (about 5 minutes). Set aside. 

4. Grate the cheddar cheese (you should have about 4 cups).

5. Spray a 3-quart casserole dish with pan spray. Place 1/3 of the pasta in the bottom of the dish. Pour 1/3 of the white sauce over the pasta, then sprinkle 1 cup cheddar cheese over the sauce. If using fresh tomatoes, slice them and place 1/3 of the slices over the cheddar cheese. If using canned tomatoes, pour 2/3 of one can over the sauce. 6. Repeat layers until pasta, sauce, cheese and tomatoes are used. Top with 1 cup of the bleu cheese and bread crumbs to suit your taste.

7. Bake in 425-degree oven for 30-40 minutes. The dish is done when the cheese is hot and bubbling.