January is a funny month. We’re all motivated to lose weight and get healthy and eat light foods. But the weather is gray and cold and makes us want casseroles and mac & cheese and hot chocolate. I’ve posted some lighter recipes in the past two weeks, but now it’s time for Pesto Mac.
Cheesy, carb-y Pesto Mac.
Yes, the same Pesto Mac I put in my What I Ate This Week last month. Except it’s not the same, because that version was a disaster. I didn’t measure my ingredients when I was making the sauce and it turned out way way WAAAAY too thick. Oops! But now I’ve perfected the recipe. And between working on this Pesto Mac and another mac & cheese recipe for a project I’m doing, I’ve learned a lot about making macaroni & cheese. Like:
Add veggies to make your mac & cheese go further.
Broccoli is probably the most obvious vegetable to add. (They even sell boxed mac & cheese with little bits of dehydrated broccoli!) I also really like adding mushrooms, greens (like kale or spinach), roasted jalapenos or poblanos, cauliflower… anything that goes with the cheese you’re using, really. I mentioned this trick in my Vegetable Baked Ziti recipe–when you add a lot of veggies, you can get more servings out of the recipe. Which a high calorie dish like mac & cheese, this is a good thing!
You don’t need to start with a roux. Really.
I know, this is kind of an unpopular opinion. I’ve posted a roux-less mac & cheese recipe on my blog before and I regularly make cheese sauces without butter. Now, some people say when you skip the roux, your sauce ends up tasting like flour. My opinion is that if you use a good, quality cheese, that’s not true. I like leaving the butter out sometimes to save calories. (This Pesto Mac recipe does start with a roux, though.)
I won’t use pre-shredded cheese anymore.
I have done a lot of experimenting with mac & cheese in the past month, with both bagged pre-shredded cheese and cheese shredded the old-fashioned way–by hand, by me. I think the results are better with cheese I shred myself. Pre-shredded cheese has an anti-caking ingredient added to it and I really think it makes the resulting sauce a little bit off. I’m still using the bagged parmesan shreds in my mac & cheese, but for the softer cheese, I’ve switched to using the blocks of cheese and shredding them myself.
Mac & cheese is freezer-friendly (with a few tweaks).
Full disclosure: I have not frozen this Pesto Mac, so I can’t say for sure that this recipe is freezer-friendly, but I can’t see why it wouldn’t be. But in general, mac & cheese is a great dish for making in advance and freezing. Here’s how:
- Cook your pasta about 1 minute less than al dente. So whatever the package instructions indicate for al dente, subtract a minute. The pasta will get softer upon reheating, so if you cook it for the full amount of time, you’ll end up with mushy mac & cheese.
- Make the sauce thinner. The first few times I froze mac & cheese, I was disappointed in the consistency of the sauce–it wasn’t smooth or creamy. The solution is to make a thin cheese sauce. After adding the milk, as soon as the sauce is smooth and coats the back of a wooden spoon, remove it from the heat and whisk in the cheese.
- Transfer the mac & cheese to a casserole dish (make sure it’s one that can go freezer-to-oven!), top with breadcrumbs and additional cheese, and cover with plastic wrap. The plastic wrap should be pressed right up against the mac & cheese to prevent ice crystals from forming. Cover with casserole lid and freeze for up to 3 months. (Remember, don’t put hot food in the freezer–it should be chilled first!)
- To reheat, remove from freezer, take off plastic wrap, and cover with foil. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-60 minutes; remove foil and bake 15-20 minutes more or until heated through. You can broil for about 5 minutes to brown the breadcrumbs on top.
It’s easy to fake baked mac & cheese.
Toast some panko in a small skillet and sprinkle it on your stovetop mac & cheese. Or top your mac & cheese with some additional shredded cheese, then sprinkle on the toasted panko. That way you get the creamy goodness (and immediate gratification!) of stovetop mac & cheese with the yummy crispy topping of baked mac & cheese. Win-win, right?
So tell me, how do you like your mac & cheese?
Stovetop macaroni and cheese made with fresh broccoli and a creamy pesto cheese sauce.
- 8 oz. elbow macaroni
- 1 large broccoli crown, broken into florets
- 2 c. reduced fat milk, warmed
- 1/4 c. unsalted butter
- 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 c. shredded fontina cheese
- 1/2 c. shredded parmesan cheese, divided
- 1/4 c. pesto
- salt + pepper to taste
- 1 tsp. olive oil
- 1/4 c. panko, toasted
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook macaroni according to package directions until al dente. Two minutes before cook time ends, add broccoli. When macaroni is done, drain immediately and set aside.
- Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add in flour and whisk into butter; continue to heat until mixture is golden brown, 3-5 minutes.
- Slowly add milk mixture to flour mixture, whisking constantly. Once sauce is smooth, cook until slightly thickened (about 3 minutes) continuing to whisk constantly.
- Remove sauce from heat. Whisk in fontina and parmesan cheese, pesto, and salt and pepper. Fold in elbow macaroni and broccoli. Divide into bowls and top with toasted panko, if desired.
- Heat olive oil in small skillet over medium heat. Add panko and cook until golden brown, 3-5 minutes.
To make this Pesto Mac into a casserole, after pasta and broccoli have been incorporated into the cheese sauce, transfer Pesto Mac to small (about 9 x 9) casserole dish. Top with panko and additional shredded cheese; bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. If top is not browned, broil for about 5 more minutes.