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The Best-Ever Macaroni and Cheese

The ultimate in comfort food, traditional macaroni and cheese also brings out the comfort qualities of cheese itself. In fact, I don't think there's anything like hot, melted cheese to bring a calm pleasure to the act of eating. As you'll see, this version calls for three of the best American-made cheeses. There's a reason for using these particular types of cheeses, although you may choose whichever cheese producer you'd like.

The sharp white cheddar has a smooth, creamy quality when it melts rather than becoming grainy; the Wisconsin-made Swiss-style Gruyère (the same type of cheese used for fondue) also melts particularly well, and the aged Dry Jack (you can also use an American aged Asiago) lends just enough sharpness to wake up the tongue.

Be sure to rinse your pasta well after cooking it, because you don't want any residual starch that could make the dish taste floury, and also be sure to undercook the pasta since it will cook further in the oven. You don't want a gummy mess. You can assemble and refrigerate this dish up to six hours ahead of time, but bring it to room temperature before baking.

1/2 pound dried elbow macaroni, large size
4 tablespoons (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
3 cups whole or lowfat milk
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/8 teaspoons cayenne pepper
10 ounces white cheddar cheese, such as Vermont's Grafton Village Cheese Company, Cabot Creamery, or Bravo Farms, coarsely grated (about 2 1/4 cups)
4 to 5 ounces coarsely grated Swiss-style Gruyère cheese, such as Wisconsin's Roth Käse, coarsely grated (about 1 1/4 cups)
2 ounces, such as California's Vella Dry Jack, finely grated (about 1/4 cup)
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Butter a 1 1/2 quarter soufflé dish or other straight-sided casserole. Set aside.

Bring a medium-sized pot of water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook 2 to 3 minutes LESS than the package directions suggest. You want the pasta to be underdone. Transfer the macaroni to a colander, drain, and rinse with cold water. Shake off as much excess water as possible and set aside.

In a large sauté pan, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter. Add the breadcrumbs and stir until thoroughly coated. Put the crumbs on a small plate and set aside. Wipe out the pan with a paper towel and set aside.

In a small saucepan, heat the milk over a medium heat until very hot but not scalded.

In the sauté pan you used for the bread crumbs, melt the remaining 3 tablespoons butter over a medium heat. When the butter begins to bubble, add the flour and stir until cooked, about 1 minute. Slowly pour in the hot milk and whisk continuously until all of the milk is incorporated and the sauce has begun to thicken, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and add the salt, pepper, cayenne, 1 1/2 cups of the cheddar, 3/4 cup of the Gruyère, and all of the dry Jack. Mix well until the cheese has melted.

Add the cooled macaroni to the cheese sauce and pour the mixture into the prepared dish. Sprinkle with the remaining cheddar and Gruyère, and top with the bread crumbs.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the bread crumbs are golden brown and the casserole is bubbling (or until you can no longer resist the aroma of melting cheese permeating your home).

Let sit for 5 to 10 minutes, then serve.

Serves 4 to 6

Note: Although I happen to think traditional macaroni and cheese is best, this recipe certainly lends itself to variations as well. Here are a few suggestions:

For a Mexican flavor, substitute an equal amount of Jack cheese for the Gruyère. Sauté 1 coarsely chopped onion together with 2 finely diced jalapeño or serrano chiles in 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat until cooked through but not brown, about 10 minutes. Add to the milk mixture.
For a more sophisticated dish, sauté one thinly-sliced fennel bulb and one thinly sliced leek in 1 tablespoon butter until limp but not brown, about 6 minutes. Add to the prepared sauce along with the cheeses.
For an Italian slant, crumble and sauté one Italian sweet or spicy sausage in a nonstick pan. Add to the cheese sauce. After you've poured the macaroni and cheese mixture into the prepared dish, dot the top with spoonfuls of ricotta cheese, using about 1/4 cup altogether. Top with buttered breadcrumbs and bake.