I thought it was fitting, for my second blog post about British cooking, that I ignore British food completely and instead turn to something more quintessentially American than a cowboy draped in the American flag eating a KFC Double-Down: macaroni and cheese. Fitting, that is, until I did some thorough journalistic research (i.e., looked it up on Wikipedia) and found out that mac and cheese is actually English. Well, kind of. It’s apparently been popular in England for the last hundred years or so, but its American heritage wins out because Thomas Jefferson reportedly enjoyed it at the White House in 1802. There you go, Yanks, getting everything good before we do.
I vaguely remember eating “macaroni cheese” as a child along with all the other bland, casserole-type things we were fed—tuna bake, fish pie, cottage pie—but it wasn’t until my early twenties that I began to appreciate it. When I was out in London’s Soho one night about five years ago, I stumbled into the Boheme Kitchen & Bar, where I drunkenly scarfed the better part of an entire plate of mac and cheese and discovered that it was really, really good. Admittedly, almost anything is really, really good when you’re drunk, which is pretty much the only reason that Jumbo Slice in Adams Morgan is still in business. But this particular macaroni-and-cheese combination had an interesting addition: spinach. And because it gave a nice texture to the dish, as well as the illusion of healthfulness, I’ve been adding it to my own rendition ever since.
In our house, we have an Oscar-night mac-and-cheese tradition, because there’s something extremely satisfying about gorging on carbs and dairy while watching people who haven’t eaten all day and who are squeezed into layers corseting and tulle. Because I try to eat reasonably healthily most of the time, it’s best to limit a dish that calls for almost a pound of full-fat cheese to once a year. However, this is a great dish for making ahead of time and storing in the fridge, and it serves up really well as leftovers. I added tomatoes to the spinach because tomatoes and cheese go together like peanut butter and jelly, or peas and carrots, or Lindsay Lohan and handcuffs. And they add a really nice freshness to the creamy cheese sauce.
Macaroni and Cheese With Spinach and Tomatoes
Serves 4 to 6
2 cups uncooked macaroni (I use whole-wheat because you can barely tell the difference, but whatever you have in the pantry is fine)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the casserole dish
4 tablespoons flour
2¼ cups milk
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups grated aged cheddar (Trader Joe’s has a really nice sharp orange cheddar, and it looks almost Kraft-like when it bakes, which is fun)
1 cup grated Monterey Jack
½ cup grated Parmesan
2 cups (about ½ of a 12-ounce bag) fresh spinach, microwaved for 90 seconds
1 cup grape tomatoes, sliced in half
¼ cup plain breadcrumbs
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 8-by-8-inch casserole dish and set aside.
Boil the macaroni according to the package instructions. Drain and set aside. You can also do this while you’re making the sauce, but it’s usually unnecessarily stressful to deal with two pans at once.
In a large saucepan set over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Add the flour and whisk constantly for about a minute until the butter is a caramel color. (It shouldn’t burn, so take it off the heat if it gets too dark.) Add the milk and whisk until the sauce thickens, about 5 minutes. Add the cayenne and season with salt (about ½ teaspoon usually works for me) and pepper.
Add all the cheese, setting aside about ½ cup of cheddar for later. Stir well until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth. Then add the cooked macaroni to the cheese sauce, stirring until the pasta is covered. Finally, add the spinach, in small handfuls so it doesn’t clump together, and the tomatoes. Mix well, and pour into the casserole dish. Mix together the ½ cup of cheddar and breadcrumbs, and sprinkle on top. Bake covered for 20 minutes and then uncovered for an additional 15 to 20 (the breadcrumbs should be browned but not too toasted).
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