Easy Whole Wheat Mac ‘n Cheese

by feastonthecheap on March 24, 2011

Mary Anne here. This past weekend the Rittenhouse/Baker/Goodson clan regaled Mariel with a birthday celebration fit for a princess. It’s not every year you face the daunting 3-0, so it needed to be a memorable occasion that would continue to make her smile for years to come. Since she was dreading the onset of a new decade, I decided to throw her one last kiddie party, complete with streamers, balloons, Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey, a pinata filled with her favorite teeth-rotting candies, and party favors galore. Mariel is an avid horsewoman, so My Little Pony adorned the paper plates, cups, and plastic tablecloth while a Cinderella Pez dispenser topped one of her two cakes; (yes, we had both a Coconut Cake and Carrot Cake!)

My darling girl acted accordingly – as any self-respecting three-year-old might – when she stomped her feet and stubbornly refused to wear the rhinestone-studded tiara her brother and I so carefully chose. Her brother summed it up best, “Hey, at least we didn’t pay the extra two dollars for the one with pink fur.” No crown of paste and glass was glitzy enough to mess with Mariel’s freshly coiffed ‘do.

The party was a blast right ’til the very end and we all laughed ourselves silly, playing those wonderful games from our now-too-distant childhood. And while I prepared many of Mariel’s favorite dishes, including Crab Cakes, Mango Salsa, Prosciutto Spirals, and Chipotle Spiced Pulled Pork Sliders with homemade Slaw (just to name a few), I realized that no kid’s party is complete without Mac ‘n Cheese! Mariel’s two pint-size nephews partook in the festivities, so I created a dish that was mild enough for the little guys while serving up enough cheesy flavor to satisfy the adults. It was a smashing success given that the grown-ups went back for thirds and the kids didn’t throw theirs on the floor.

And speaking of tiny tots, when Mariel and her brothers were just old enough to voice an opinion, they weren’t afraid to let me know when I came up short at dinnertime, which was more often than I’d care to admit given that I juggled catering and decorating jobs. Back then, I was known to prepare – (gasp) – prepackaged, fluorescent yellow Kraft Cheese & Macaroni. I assuaged my guilt by dressing it up with fresh peas and diced ham, which you can certainly do with this homemade rendition to make it a more complete meal. Any way you dish it up, this creamy comfort food is a favorite of both young and old. Happy Birthday-Week, with endless love, to the fairest princess of them all!

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Easy Whole Wheat Mac n’ Cheese
Serves 8 as an Entrée or Serves 16 as a Side

Note: Use any combination of your favorite cheeses including mild to sharp cheddar, Jarlsberg, Smoked Gouda, Gruyere or Parmesan.

Ingredients:
2½ cups milk, heated to a very low simmer (I used 1%) – stock
1 lb. whole wheat elbow macaroni – $1.69
5 Tablespoons sweet butter, divided: 3 +1 + 1 – stock
3 Tablespoons flour – stock
1 teaspoon dried mustard – stock
1 cup grated Jarlsberg cheese – $2.29
1 cup grated cheddar cheese – $1.25
salt and pepper to taste – stock
¾ cup fresh, unseasoned breadcrumbs – stock
Grand Total Assuming Well–Stocked Pantry: $5.23
Total Per 8 Entrée Servings: $0.65
Total Per 16 Side Servings: $0.33

Directions:
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 9 x 13 inch lasagna pan with 1 Tablespoon of the soft butter.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

3. Meanwhile, warm the milk to a “quiet simmer”, in a small saucepan over medium-low flame. Be careful not to scorch the milk.

4. Cook the pasta until just al dente. It will finish cooking in the oven. Drain in a colander and rinse immediately in cold water to stop the cooking process. Transfer the pasta to a large bowl.

5. Prepare the white sauce. Using a medium saucepan, melt 3 Tablespoons of the butter. Stir in the flour and cook over medium-low flame, whisking constantly for 5 minutes. Whisk in the dried mustard.

6. Very gradually, add the warmed milk, whisking constantly until smooth. The sauce should thicken a bit.

7. Remove from the flame and add the cheeses, stirring well to combine thoroughly.

8. Pour the cheese sauce over the cooled pasta, season with salt and pepper, stirring well to combine.

9. Transfer the mixture to the prepared casserole/lasagna pan.

10. Using your fingers, mix the final pat of butter with the fresh breadcrumbs.

11. Sprinkle the buttered breadcrumbs evenly over the top of the Mac ‘n Cheese.

12. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until the breadcrumbs are golden. Garnish with a bit more grated cheese of your choice, if desired.