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 Dare Billings residents cheer that the snow and slush and wind plaguing other parts of the state seem to have moved north of us? That we aren’t expected to see snow until, possibly, Sunday night?

 

It’s nice to have sunny skies, even if only for a day.

 

But it’s clear that the time for comfort food is at hand.

 

One of the least expensive comfort dishes --- and one that most kids love --- is pasta and cheese. It’s also one of the easiest to prepare and most easily adapted to individual tastes. It also allows you to stretch a tight meat budget.

 

You can add cooked ground beef or chunked ham or shredded cooked tuna or salmon; sautéed green peppers, onions and garlic; stir in chopped, cooked tomatoes that have been seeded. The list is limited only by your imagination and likes.

 

Many people use just one type of cheese, with cheddar or a cheese blend most likely to get the call.

 

But you’ll get a much richer, dimensional dish if you incorporate a variety of cheeses, such as fresh Parmesan, Swiss or Monterey Jack.

 

One reader asked why the macaroni and cheese served at home just never seemed to measure up to that eaten elsewhere.

 

The answer probably lies in the ingredients and the method of preparation. As noted, using more than one kind of cheese adds to the flavor, as does the addition of bread crumbs or a mix of bread crumbs and grated Parmesan cheese, especially if it goes into the over to get slightly crunchy.

 

The oven also often is the key to restaurant pasta and cheese. The cheese gets thick and gooey and has longer to meld with the pasta than if you just pour cheese sauce over cooked, drained pasta. And the cheese turns a bit brown with the oven’s heat.

 

The type of pasta that you use also will affect the dish. Macaroni can grab the cheese sauce in its hollows. But spiral pasta usually will get an even better grip on the sauce and often retains its consistency better than simple macaroni.

 

Shell-style pasta also is a good choice for use with cheese or other sauces.

 

Here is a baked macaroni and cheese dish from The Associated Press to try, then customize in the future:

 Creamy sauce, crisp topping key to mac ’n cheese

 Associated Press 

A great macaroni and cheese requires a perfect melding of the pasta and the cheese sauce.

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To get that, you’ll need to ignore conventional wisdom about cooking pasta until just tender (al dente). To help the cheese sauce stick to the pasta, the macaroni is cooked until just beyond al dente, which makes it more absorbent and starchier.

This recipe calls for a 3-quart casserole dish, but multiple smaller baking dishes could be used.

 BAKED MACARONI AND CHEESE Start to finish: 45 minutes 1/2 cup unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons, divided2 tablespoons salt, plus more to taste1 pound elbow macaroni1 tablespoon olive oil3 1/2 cups whole milk1/2 cup all-purpose flourGround black pepper, to taste2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese, divided2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided1 cup panko or other coarse bread crumbs 

Heat the oven to broil. Use 1 tablespoon of butter to generously coat a 3-quart casserole dish.

Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large stockpot. Add 2 tablespoons of salt, stir briefly, then add the pasta. Cook until tender and just past al dente, about 10 to 13 minutes, or slightly longer than package directions.

Drain the pasta, then transfer it to a large bowl. Drizzle the olive oil over the pasta, then toss to coat. Set aside.

To make the sauce, in a small saucepan over low heat, bring the milk to a simmer. Remove the pan from the heat.

In a medium saucepan over medium, melt 1/2 cup of the remaining butter, using a whisk to swirl it to ensure the butter melts completely and does not turn brown. If the butter begins to brown, lower the heat.

While whisking, sprinkle in the flour. Continue to whisk until the mixture just bubbles, about 2 minutes. Do not let the mixture brown. While whisking, slowly pour in the milk. Continue whisking until there are no lumps.

Bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce heat to low and season with salt and pepper. Continue whisking until the sauce reaches the consistency of heavy cream and coats the back of a spoon, about 2 minutes.

Remove the sauce from the heat. Whisk in 1 1/2 cups of the cheddar cheese, all of the Monterey jack and a 1/2 cup of the Parmesan. Whisk until the cheese is completely melted and the sauce is smooth.

Pour the sauce over the pasta and gently toss to coat. Transfer the pasta and sauce, using a rubber spatula to scrape the bowl, to the prepare casserole dish. Set aside.

In a small microwave-safe bowl, melt the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter by microwaving on high for about 20 seconds. Add the bread crumbs and remaining cheddar and Parmesan cheeses. Toss well.

Spread the bread crumb mixture evenly over the pasta. Place the dish on the oven’s middle rack and broil for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the edges are bubbly and a crunchy crust forms on top. Cool briefly before serving.

Makes 6 servings.

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