Macaroni & Cheese (with a twist)

Mac & Cheese with Ham and Peas
Q. Betty, my family loves good old macaroni and cheese, but it's time to spice up the recipe. Any suggestions?

A. One of the cooking magazines I subscribe to is Fine Cooking.  Unlike some of the other magazines, this one is devoted entirely to cooking and frequently sends me right to the kitchen to try one of their recipes.  The latest issue featured an article on Macaroni and Cheese with charts that offered  a dizzying number of ways to combine ingredients to vary this usually plain dish.  The one I chose to try was perked up with some Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, some diced ham, peas and a delicious crunchy topping made with fresh breadcrumbs, a little Parmigiano-Reggiano, garlic and melted butter.  (Watch my video demonstration)

A key to making the sauce is to cook the flour and butter in the beginning for 3 or 4 minutes to make sure there is no “floury” taste so don’t skimp on this step.

For the topping:

1 small clove garlic, grated
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 cups coarse, fresh breadcrumbs, lightly toasted (process 4 or 5 slices good quality bread until coarse crumbs form)
2 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Stir the garlic into the melted butter. Drizzle the melted butter over the crumbs.  Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano.  Toss well with a spoon or your hands.  Set aside.

For the cheese sauce:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup flour
3½ cups whole milk
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated
2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated
1 cup diced ham
1½ cups peas, thawed if using frozen
1 pound cooked macaroni

Put a large pot of water on to boil and preheat your oven to 350°.
Melt the butter in a heavy-duty 3-to-4 quart saucepan.  Whisk in the flour and continue to whisk over low heat for 3 or 4 minutes.    Slowly add the milk, whisking constantly.

Whisk until the sauce is smooth and slightly thickened.  Raise the heat to medium and bring the sauce to a simmer, whisking constantly.  Lower the heat to maintain a gently simmer and cook, whisking occasionally, for 10 minutes. 
Elbow Pasta

In the meantime, salt the boiling water for the pasta and add the pasta.  Cook for 7 minutes.  Drain well, return to the cooking pot or a large bowl and toss with a tablespoon of butter to prevent sticking.

Remove from the sauce from the heat and gently whisk in the cheeses.  Add the sauce to the cooked pasta and toss well.  Gently fold in the ham and peas to combine.
Transfer the mixture to a 9-x-13 baking dish, top with the crumb mixture and bake for 15 minutes.

If you don’t want to cook the entire mixture at once, divide as you wish into smaller portions and freeze for future use. The video demonstration is below, please watch.

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