A treat I always looked forward to on my birthday was choosing anything I wanted for supper, and every year I asked for the same thing…cheese ravioli.
I am and have always been macaroni crazy. It’s a rule when you’re Italian, even if you look Irish. Stuffed shells were (and are) a fixture on our Thanksgiving table. Right after the Italian wedding soup and before the turkey. When I stopped eating meat ten years ago my Nana’s stuffed shells essentially became my Thanksgiving dinner, and I can’t imagine anything more delicious…unless it’s Courtney’s veggie lasagna, which has also become a recent holiday tradition.
Pasta and cheese is a near-perfect combination. While pasta and primarily ricotta-based cheese dishes like ravioli, tortellini, lasagna, manicotti, and stuffed shells hold their own, one other combination has proven itself to be the frontrunner in the pasta and cheese race…good old macaroni and cheese, be it blue box or homemade.
Its ultimate origins are assuredly Italian, as recipes exist from the late thirteenth century in southern Italy that called for squares of pasta to be cooked in water and tossed with grated cheese, probably Parmesan.
Macaroni and cheese in America has an equally murky past. Some believe it first appeared as a casserole at New England church suppers, but another version credits Thomas Jefferson himself with bringing macaroni and cheese back with him after he spent time in Italy. In truth, he did bring back a pasta machine and was very fond of the dish, but macaroni and cheese probably existed stateside before he increased its reputation by classifying it a presidential favorite. Its popularity steadily increased, inspiring Kraft to introduce the first packaged dry macaroni and cheese mix in 1937. It was cheap, convenient comfort food…and as the country headed into WWII a few years later it was a solution for supper in the face of dairy and meat rationing. And clearly, it is only more popular today. I don’t know anyone that didn’t grow up eating it, and it’s a guaranteed crowd pleaser for both kids and adults, maybe second only to the almighty pizza.
I would have liked to have made the Jefferson version for you, but instead I found myself shopping for hotdogs.
John wanted to celebrate his birthday this past weekend by relaxing and watching the first Patriots game of the season, and since I have less than zero interest in football, I volunteered to make some casseroles. He requested broccoli and cheese, and something he lovingly refers to as MAC & DOGS. I hate it when people even refer to macaroni and cheese as “mac & cheese”…so you can imagine how I feel about MAC & DOGS. Also, as a personal rule I don’t purchase or cook any meat.
But…in the spirit of birthdays and compromise and loving the heck out of him, I agreed and embraced the task. I used a classic macaroni and cheese casserole recipe I trusted and purchased the most granola hotdogs I could find.
The hotdog package was actually quite pretty.
I tore breadcrumbs, grated sharp cheddar and gruyère, finally used my beautiful dutch oven to make the white sauce, and fried up the hotdogs.
Yumy, right? Slice and mix.
Top and bake.
I feel greasy just looking at that, but the boys liked it.
I also made a nectarine pie, since John isn’t into cake. Don’t ask me why I used nectarines. I don’t think they were ripe enough, so it was bland…but I had fun practicing my piecrust dough, and putting that paper napkin to work.
Do you have anything you add to your macaroni and cheese? Do you swear by a certain noodle shape or cheese combination? I am a fan of elbows, broccoli florets, and diced tomatoes with jalepenos.
Mac & Dogs Casserole
(Adapted from Martha Stewart – hers is obviously sans dogs)
6 slices white bread, torn into small pieces
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
5 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 1/2 cups (about 18 ounces) grated sharp white cheddar
2 cups (about 8 ounces) grated gruyère
1 pound elbow macaroni
1 package of hotdogs (mine had 7)
- Preheat the oven to 375. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish; set aside.
- Place bread pieces in a medium bowl. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Pour butter into the bowl with bread, and toss. Set the breadcrumbs aside.
- In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, heat milk. Melt remaining 6 tablespoons butter in a high-sided skillet over medium heat. When butter bubbles, add flour. Cook, stirring, 1 minute.
- Slowly pour hot milk into flour-butter mixture while whisking. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick.
- Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in salt, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper, 3 cups cheddar, and 1 1/2 cups gruyère. Set cheese sauce aside.
- Fill a large saucepan with water and bring to a boil. While you are waiting for it to boil butter a saucepan and cook hotdogs over medium heat until skin just begins to bubble. Remove from heat and slice into disks. Set aside.
- When water is boiling add macaroni; cook 2 to 3 fewer minutes than manufacturer’s directions, until outside of pasta is cooked and inside is underdone. Transfer the macaroni to a colander, rinse under cold running water, and drain well.
- Stir macaroni and hotdog pieces into the cheese sauce.
- Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish. Sprinkle remaining 1 1/2 cups cheddar and 1/2 cup gruyère; scatter breadcrumbs over the top.
- Bake until browned on top, about 30 minutes. Transfer dish to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes; serve.
Mac & Dog inspiration from this guy, moments after he beat me at Scrabble:
Yes…sometimes it happens.
And just because I think I can get away with it for making something with hotdogs, here we are…all dressed for Easter Sunday: