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Comfort Food Cravings: Macaroni and Cheese

Macaroni and Cheese Macaroni and Cheese
by Cheryl Hill-Burrier

Whether out partying with friends or home alone feeling tail draggin' sad, we all crave comfort food. Oddly enough, the majority of us crave just about the same things like chips and dip, burgers and fries, mac and cheese, cake, cookies, or chocolate anything. The question is why do these foods soothe us? And the answer just might be something called "ghrelin". So, grab a plate of nachos and stick with me while I explain, and then we'll cook up the Number One comfort food that'll give your security blanket a real complex.

According to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center's Dr. Zigman, his ongoing mouse study shows that ghrelin, the "hunger hormone", is involved in triggering craving reactions for high-calorie, high-fat comfort foods during high stress levels -- good, bad or otherwise. Ghrelin's anti-depressant effects (along with high-carb foods that increase serotonin levels) stimulate the brain chemistry, which in turn produce a feeling of contentment and happiness.

So, when you attend a cocktail party where food is being served, do you start off by grazing around the fruit and veggie platters, or go for the rich, gooey snacks stacked upon the table? And when you get depressed, do you stand in front of the fridge staring into the produce drawer or the shelf holding the leftover chocolate truffle pie? If you opted for the fruits and veggies, good for you, but you're the exceptional bird in the flock. Another example of emotional eating involves a southern tradition that we refer to as "funeralizing", which involves everyone bringing casseroles, cakes, barbecue and other delights to a designated location for one and all to eat while reminiscing about the dearly departed. Food comforts us.

Now, I'll bet two things. When most of y'all were kiddos, your mother or grandmother served up big bowls of macaroni and cheese, and you still love it! Well, there's a reason for that. Macaroni and cheese happens to be the number one comfort food, and has been around since 13th century Italy where the original homemade recipes included pasta, butter or cream, and Parmesan cheese.

Later, American colonists made their own macaroni and cheese for meals and church suppers by using spices like nutmeg and mustard. Since the cheese making process took so long and was more expensive, colonists went about blending different cheeses, emulsifiers, salt, or other chemical compounds along with the annatto spice used to create the orange coloring. This was the basis for American cheese.

Today, American cheese is made by mixing milk, milk fat, milk protein concentrate, whey, whey protein concentrate, salt and coloring.

Moving on to the year , a fella named Emil Frey accidentally invented a product that he thought was so velvety, he named it Velveeta. The invention was a combination of whey and cheese, which required its own classification of pasteurized processed cheese food. Oddly enough, in , Kraft foods came up with a similar product that they also named Velveeta. Kraft fought for and won the rights to the name. By the end of the Great Depression in , when Americans were still mindful of stretching their dollars, Kraft introduced the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner, which was referred to as "the housewife's best friend -- a nourishing one pot meal".

When you get depressed, do you stand in front of the fridge staring into the produce drawer or the shelf holding the leftover chocolate truffle pie? So, there you have it: the history and proof of popularity for this simply delicious meal just as it is. Or not. As we all know, cooks (being who they are) see plenty of room for imagination in simple things, while gourmet chefs work away to incorporate this all-time favorite into their menus by blending expensive ingredients like Gruyàre cheese, white wine, crème fraiche, mushrooms, lobster bits and more. Which is why, when you ask how macaroni and cheese is made, you'll find that it's like asking driving directions. Everyone has their own version of getting there.

In my opinion, comfort comes from simplicity, and that's what I have for you today -- easy, creamy, cheesy, stove-top Macaroni and Cheese, along with a few helpful tips and a gourmet recipe for mac and cheese to impress your boss.

Macaroni and Cheese Tips

  • Creamy texture and good flavor require softer cheeses blended half and half with harder cheese.
  • Always cook pasta in plenty of water to keep noodles from sticking to each other.
  • Cook pasta to al dente state, which is firm but not hard.
  • Never rinse pasta or it will remove the starch that gives sauces something to stick to.
  • Adding 2 tablespoons of olive oil will help keep the macaroni and cheese from hardening when refrigerated.
  • Olive oil can be substituted for butter; 1/4 cup butter equals 3 tablespoons olive oil.

Things to Do with Basic Macaroni and Cheese

  • Stir in 5 or 6 pieces of cooked, crumbled bacon along with 2 tablespoons of bacon grease.
  • Stir in cut up hot dogs, cubed ham, 1-inch slices of sausage, or cooked and crumbled burger meat.
  • Stir in your favorite veggies.
  • Turn macaroni and cheese into a version of chicken pot-pie by adding cut up chicken pieces, peas and carrots.
  • Blend different cheeses, including smoked, to create a variety of cheese flavors.

Stove-Top Creamy Macaroni and Cheese

  • 12 ounces uncooked elbow macaroni
  • 5 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried mustard
  • 2 cups milk
  • 6 ounces Cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 6 ounces American cheese, shredded or cubed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
Cook macaroni in 2 quarts boiling water with 1 tablespoon salt until al dente, about 6 minutes. Drain; do not rinse. Toss macaroni with 1 tablespoon of the butter to prevent noodles from sticking together and set aside.

In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, melt remaining butter. Then add flour and stir with a whisk until blended. Stir in salt, pepper, and dried mustard. Increase heat to medium-high and gradually stir in the milk, constantly stirring as the mixture begins to bubble and thicken. Decrease heat back to medium-low and stir in cheeses until melted and smooth. Add the macaroni and olive oil and stir to blend. Makes 2 to 4 servings.

Lobster or Crab Macaroni and Cheese

  • 16 ounces penne pasta
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 6 ounces Gouda cheese, grated
  • 4 ounces lobster knuckle meat or lump crab meat
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Cook pasta in 2 quarts boiling water with 1 tablespoon salt until al dente, about 6 to 8 minutes. Drain; do not rinse. Toss pasta with 1 tablespoon of the butter to prevent noodles from sticking together and set aside.

In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, melt butter, then add flour and stir until blended. Increase heat to medium-high and stir in milk, salt, pepper and nutmeg, stirring constantly with a whisk until the mixture comes to a boil. Boil briefly, reduce heat to medium-low and stir in cream and Gouda cheese until melted. Combine the sauce, pasta and lobster or crab meat and toss until well mixed. Top each serving with grated Parmesan cheese.

To make a casserole from this recipe, just pour the completed mixture into a casserole dish and heat in a 350°F oven until the sauce bubbles, about 8 minutes. Top casserole with the Parmesan Cheese. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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