macaroni and cheese stuffed artichokes with goat cheese bechamel sauce and lemon zested breadcrumb topping
The one thing that I cook that I'd really say is a crowd pleaser is macaroni and cheese. Two years ago, Laura and I were hosting a joint birthday party in our on campus apartment, and I decided that some really good mac and cheese would be the perfect party food. Macaroni and cheese is one of those foods that can be really really great when it's done right, but I find that it's often too dry, too creamy, or too processed tasting for me to enjoy it. In my opinion, a good version of the dish has a nice cheesy bechamel sauce holding it together, but also plenty of melty gooey cheese layered into it, and a crispy top.
I don't know where you all stand on the creamy vs. cheesy macaroni spectrum but this New York Times article provides some interesting commentary. Despite the current fashion for creamier versions, some purists actually consider what they call "macaroni and cheese sauce," to be an entirely different and entirely inferior dish. To a certain point, I agree. I find overly creamy mac and cheeses can actually trigger my gag reflex. And don't even get my started on the abomination that is Kraft— I may have tried it once, buy my brain has clearly surpressed that terrible memory. However, that is not to say that a cream base is not an essential part of the dish. Without enough of one, the cheese can congeal into an equally unappealing block of oily pasta.
Luckily for my dinner guests, and for you, I've found a recipe that successfully balances the two elements to form the perfect celebration of cheese and carbs: Emeril Lagasse's Macaroni with Four Cheeses
Emeril starts off by making a bechamel sauce from half a stick of butter, four tablespoons flour, two cups of half and half, 4 ounces grated parmesan, a dash of hot sauce, salt and pepper. He pours this over a pound of buttered elbow macaroni mixed with some minced garlic, and then layers the pasta into a buttered baking dish with a pound and a half of cheddar, fontina, gruyere and parmesan cheeses. On top of the final layer of cheese, he adds seasoned breadcrumbs, and then he lets the oven work its magic for 45 minutes or so. This mac and cheese is irresistably good, and whenever I make it everyone always raves about it.
Over the past two years, I've made this recipe many times, including for my and Matt's graduation party, where we totally overestimated and made enough bechamel sauce for ten pounds of pasta—what normally took took 4 to 5 minutes to thicken became a 45 minute affair! After following the recipe very carefully the first couple of times, I've been able to play around quite a bit: using varying the types of cheese included based on what's around and what I can afford, adding sweet or hot sausages, and even baking the pasta into hollowed out artichokes. (As you might now guess, this was the only mac of which I took decent photos. This recipe was our guide, but we ignored large chunks of it.)
My only rules when it comes to the dish is that some of the cheese has to be mixed into the sauce, and that there needs to be lots of it shredded and layered inside to make for gooey cheesy strings when you dig into it. I've used parmesan, romano, goat cheese or even cheddar in the sauce, using more or less of it depending on how much I have, although more is always better. The shredded cheese is usually cheddar with the fontina and gruyere only if I can afford them, although I recently used mozzarella to great effect. I really like to make this with the traditional elbows, but I am not into the skinnier straight macaroni, as it's too reminiscent of Kraft crap. I've also had success using the little shells, or conchigliette, which Laura particularly liked, and to a lesser degree the corkscrew cavatappi. I think my favorite though, is radiatori, because the cheese really clings to its many little ridges.
I actually made a wonderful gluten free version of the dish for Matt just last month with his special penne. It was probably not the best noodle for this dish, but that didn't diminish his enjoyment of the dish. I used Bob's Red Mill gluten-free flour to make the one batch of bechamel, which I divided between Matt's pasta and everyone else's, and no one was the wiser.
Macaroni and cheese is such a classic dish, and everyone loves it. As much as I recommend the Emeril version, there is no one definitive version of this dish, and I encourage you to play around. Throw in some bacon and crispy onions, or use mustard powder or dijon to kick up the flavor a bit. Lots of people like to add roasted tomatoes, and I personally think artichoke hearts or roasted peppers would be lovely with the right cheeses. Despite the Italian ban on mixing seafood and cheese, lobster or shrimp macs are hugely popular. Nutmeg and worcestershire sauce are other common flavoring agents. Personally, I'm wary of eggs, evaporated milk, cream cheese or cottage cheese, but I do think there's plenty of other ways to change it up. If you're looking for more ideas, the Chowhound message board is a great place to start. There is so much to experiment with, I don't see how anyone could ever be satisfied with a box and a packet of powered "cheese mix"!