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In case you haven’t noticed, cooking blogs and magazines are comfort food-happy as of late. Spaghetti and meatballs on the cover of Gourmet’s January issue? “Classic comforts we love!” in the February issue of Living, including a ton of cupcake recipes and “hearty winter suppers”? Yep, we want comfort. Stemming from the fact that it feels like an exceptionally long winter and the economy being what it is, it’s not too surprising that we’re looking to comforting favorites in the kitchen in order to soothe our unsettled stomachs and minds. Not to mention that comfort food can usually be made on the cheap, like homemade mac & cheese!

I grew up on the yellow boxed stuff from Kraft (which I unabashedly crave at times), but my mom did occasionally make mac & cheese from scratch. In college, I moved on to Annie’s and had a brief fling with Easy Mac, which only required a microwave as opposed to a stove, missing from the dorms, of course. Then in New York came the mac & cheese restaurants like the orange-hued S’mac in the East Village, proving that one-hit-wonder venues can draw crowds and be worthy of them. Only necessitating a few ingredients to be tasty, nonetheless, I sure have consumed a lot of sub-par mac & cheese. Covered in onions, smothered with bread crumbs, infiltrated with peppers, drowning in a soppy mess of a half-and-half-like substance, I’m always reluctant to order it upon seeing it on the menu. Who has the best? Gridskipper weighs in on the issue, as does Serious Eats.

My favorite mac & cheeses, whether they come out of my own kitchen or someone else’s, are pretty simple, and additionally, fairly cheap ingredient-wise. Is my recipe the best? Probably not, but it’s easy to make, doesn’t call for pricey cheeses that I constantly ogle at when in Whole Foods and certainly succeeds at being good old-fashioned comfort food. Here it is:

Ingredients

1 lb pasta (I like to use rotini as opposed to elbow, because it clings to the cheese better)
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
1/2 cup milk (I usually use soy milk to cut down on the dairy-heavy factor of this recipe)
1 1/2 cup half-and-half
1 tsp smoked paprika (Note: get the stuff that actually hails from Hungary, not the kind you’ll commonly find in a McCormick container–notice the taste of the latter? Trick question–there isn’t any! That was my 25% Hungarian-ness talking….)
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tsp salt
3 1/4 cups sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

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Directions

1. Cook pasta according to box directions until al dente and keep warm in pot; grease a 13 X 9 glass dish or a large-enough casserole dish and pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. In a large saucepan or wok, melt the butter over low heat. Add in flour and continue to stir until it’s bubbly, about a minute or two.

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3. Stir in milk and half-and-half and cook over low-medium heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens, about two or three minutes. (I’ve found that a whisk works well here).

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4. Remove from heat and add paprika, pepper, salt and 2 3/4 cups of the cheddar cheese. (Reserve the rest). Mix together until it’s all lovely and smooth-looking. This is usually the point where I dip my finger in, taste and say “yum.” Okay, it’s hot, be careful!
5. If your saucepan is large enough, pour the pasta into it and combine. (If not, add the cheese mixture to the pasta pot–I prefer to only scrub one cheesy pot/pan).
6. Pour into the greased dish and bake for 25-30 minutes, sprinkling on the reserved 1/2 cup cheddar cheese when there are about 10 minutes of baking time left; salt (and paprika if you want) to taste.