Choose Your Own Adventure | Mac ‘N Cheese, Your Way

Remember those “choose your own adventure” books that were popular when you were a kid? The ones that allowed you to determine the main character’s actions and the plot’s outcome? Every few pages you would be given two or three choices, each leading to more choices and ultimately to one of many different endings.

Life is kind of like those books, when you think about it. Every day we are faced with choices. What to have for breakfast, which route to take to work, to strap on those running shoes and pound out that run or sit on the couch and drink wine, what to make for dinner, whether or not to smile at a stranger (which is almost always a good idea, in my opinion).

And all of these choices, no matter how small they might seem at the time, affect the larger twists and turns that our lives take. The moral of the story? Choose wisely friends. But at the same time, don’t take life too seriously. Having fun is important too.

Did you know that you can have fun with mac ‘n cheese? Did you have any idea how many choices you are presented with when it comes to making this delicious and comforting dish?

Let’s talk about these choices, shall we?

First, let’s talk about cheese. You can go the traditional route with a sharp Cheddar, or you can change it up with Gruyère, Fontina, Havarti, Gouda, you name it! Don’t forget an accent cheese, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Feta, or Goat cheese.

How about pasta? Macaroni, shells, penne, rotini, any small pasta will do!

And not that cheese and pasta require any help in the deliciousness department, but there are some flavorful and fun things that you can add to the mix! Herbs and spices like fresh thyme, rosemary, sage, parsely, dry mustard, cayenne pepper, and nutmeg add some extra flavor, while add-ins like peas, carrots, brussel sprouts, mushrooms, spinach, bacon, and artichokes give a little more beef to the final product.

Finally, don’t forget the irresistible crispy topping, created with breadcrumbs, butter and garlic!

The possibilities are truly endless! Choose your own adventure friends. Have fun with life, and with your food!

Choose Your Own Adventure Mac ‘N Cheese (adapted from Fine Cooking magazine, Feb./Mar. 2012)

Now, this recipe takes some time to prepare, but I promise you, it is so worth it. Especially if you’re single like me – the leftovers fed me for lunch all week!

Step One: Mix the topping!

1 garlic clove, minced

3 TBSP. butter, melted

2 cups Panko bread crumbs, lightly toasted

Salt and pepper

2 TBSP. finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional)

Stir the garlic into the melted butter. Put the breadcrumbs into a medium bowl and drizzle the butter over top. Add in the salt and pepper, and Parmigiano-Reggiano (if using). Mix well and set aside.

Step Two: Make the cheese sauce!

4 TBSP. butter

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

3 1/2 cups milk (at least 1%)

Salt, to taste

4 cups cheese of your choice, plus up to one cup of an accent cheese

Herbs and spices (up to three, and up to 1 tsp. of each, depending on what you’re using)

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Whisk in the flour and continue to whisk over low heat for about 3 minutes. The mixture will be bubbly and frothy. Slowly add the milk, whisking constantly until the sauce is smooth and has the consistency of heavy cream, about 6 minutes. Increase the heat to medium and bring the sauce to a simmer, whisking constantly. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, whisking occasionally, for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add the cheese, as well as the herbs and spices (if using). Season to taste with salt. Set aside, but keep warm.

Step Three: Cook the pasta!

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add 1 lb. of your choice of pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, about 1 minute less than indicated on the package. Drain well and return to the pot.

Step Four: Mix it all together!

Add the cheese sauce and your choice of add-ins (up to 3 cups total) to the pasta and gently stir to combine. If you’re using bacon, pancetta, or bacon, cook ’em up first. If you’re using any veggies, like brussels or asparagus, steam or sauté them before adding them in.

Step Five: Bake!

Transfer the pasta mixture to a 9×13 inch baking dish that has been sprayed with non-stick spray. Evenly sprinkle the breadcrumbs over top. Bake at 350°F until the top is golden, about 15-20 minutes. Serve immediately.

For the batch of mac ‘n cheese pictured here, I used small shell pasta, Gruyère and Fontina cheese (accented with Parmigiana-Reggiano), fresh parsely and a pinch of cayenne, and brussel sprouts and pancetta. It was a true masterpiece! Next time, I’m going to try sharp Cheddar with peas and ham, and elbow macaroni for a more traditional mac ‘n cheese. See? Endless possibilities. Let your imagination run wild!

Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner! | Chicken Pot Pie.

With the colder weather over the past few days (hello Winter!), I was craving something hearty and warm for dinner last night. I came across this recipe for Chicken Pot Pie, from Ina Garten (also known as Barefoot Contessa). I have a complete fear of pastry, and have never, ever in my life attempted to make a pie crust from scratch. What better way to start the new venture of a blog than by attempting to conquer a culinary fear? Call me crazy, but this recipe was therapy. The finished product was incredible, resulting in some oohs and aahs in the lunchroom at work today when I brought leftovers. A few shared tastes led to further compliments and requests for the recipe. Here it is ladies! These pot pies would also make a fabulous meal for guests, as the individual servings make for quite a delightful presentation. Imagine being able to dig in to your own little pie, made just for you! Either way, give these a try, you won’t regret it. Happy eating!

Chicken Pot Pie (adapted from Ina Garten)

6 chicken breasts, cut into chunks

1 TBSP. olive oil

Salt and pepper (preferably sea salt and freshly ground pepper)

5 cups chicken stock

2 chicken bouillon cubes (or 4 tsp. of bouillon powder)

1/4 cup unsalted butter

2 cups of chopped yellow onions

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup half & half cream (or heavy cream if you like it really rich)

2 cups medium-diced carrots

2 cups frozen peas

Glug of white wine (optional)

1/2 cup minced fresh parsley leaves (or 1 tsp. dried)

For the pastry:

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. sea salt

1 tsp. baking powder

1 cup cold unsalted butter, diced

1/2 to 2/3 cup ice water

1 egg beaten with 1 TBSP. water, for egg wash

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Throw in the diced chicken and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Once the chicken is cooked through, set aside.

In a small saucepan, heat the chicken stock and dissolve the bouillon cubes in the stock. In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter and saute the onions over medium-low heat for 10-15 minutes, until translucent. Add the flour and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add the hot chicken stock to the sauce. Simmer over low heat for 1 more minute, stirring, until thick (this will only take a couple of minutes). Add 1 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. pepper, and the cream. Add the cubed chicken, carrots, peas, parsley, and the white wine, if you’re using it. Mix well.

For the pastry, mix the flour, salt, and baking powder in a bowl. Add the butter and cut it into the flour mixture with a pastry blender until the butter is the size of peas. Slowly add in the ice water; you only want to add enough to moisten the dough and have it just come together. Dump the dough out onto a floured surface and knead quickly into a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic and allow it to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes (or you can make it a day in advance).

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Divide the filling equally among 4 ovenproof bowls (I think it would work equally well to make two large pies, if that is your preference – I only had one ovenproof small bowl, so I made one small and one very large). Divide the dough into quarters (or in half if making two large pies), and then roll each piece into an 8-inch circle. Brush the outside edges of each bowl with the egg wash, then place the dough on top. Trim the circle to 1/2-inch larger than the top of the bowl. Crimp the dough to fold over the side, pressing it to make it stick. Brush the dough with the egg wash and make 3 slits in the top with a sharp knife. Sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour, or until the top is golden brown and the filling is bubbling hot. Then try not to burn yourself as you proceed to start shoveling this goodness into your mouth. Enjoy!

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