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More from your mac

Mac and cheese is all about technique. And you thought it was about the cheese.

There is more to achieving the best texture and flavor, says Ellen Brown, author of "Mac & Cheese: 80 Classic & Creative Versions of the Ultimate Comfort Food" (Running Press, $20).

"The difference between a good mac and cheese and a great mac and cheese is technique," says Brown, cookbook author, food columnist and former USA Today food editor. And the key elements of that technique are cooking the pasta to the proper doneness and stirring up a smooth sauce.

With those elements conquered, the third is an ingredient, not method, and is, of course, that cheese. You want to use flavorful cheese, certainly, but you also want a combination of two or more for complexity.

Whether stove top or baked (better, thank you), classic or with add-ins of various vegetables (greens, broccoli, artichokes) or proteins (lobster, chicken, bacon), a mac and cheese's greatness is built upon this foundation. Brown and Laura Werlin's "Mac & Cheese, Please!" break it down.

jxgray@tribune.com

Mediterranean mac and cheese with olives

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 40 minutes

Makes: 4 to 6 servings

Adapted from "Mac & Cheese," by Ellen Brown, who adapted the recipe from S'MAC (Sarita's Macaroni & Cheese) in New York.

8 cloves garlic, unpeeled

1 to 2 teaspoons olive oil

6 ounces baby spinach

1/2 pound penne

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons flour

1 1/2 cups whole milk, warmed

2 teaspoons fresh thyme

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

6 ounces goat cheese, crumbled

2 ounces Muenster, grated

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, diced

3 ounces provolone, grated

1/4 cup plan breadcrumbs

1 Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Toss garlic with oil; wrap in foil. Bake until cloves are soft, 15-20 minutes. Allow to cool. Pop cloves from skins; mash into a paste.

2 Meanwhile, heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in the spinach; cook just until wilted, 30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon; drain. When cool, squeeze out liquid. Add pasta to boiling water; cook until just beginning to soften; it should not yet be al dente. Drain; rinse the pasta. Return it to the pot.

3 Melt butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat; stir in flour. Cook, stirring, until mixture turns slightly beige, is bubbly and appears to have grown in volume, 1 minute. Increase heat to medium; slowly whisk in the milk. Heat until just beginning to bubble, whisking frequently. Reduce heat to low; stir in thyme and lemon zest. Simmer, 2 minutes.

4 Add goat and Muenster cheeses by 1/2-cup measures, stirring until cheese melts before adding more. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir garlic, spinach and olives into pasta. Pour sauce over pasta; stir to coat. Transfer to a buttered 13-by-9-inch baking pan. Combine provolone and breadcrumbs; sprinkle over dish.

5 Bake until cheese sauce is bubbly and topping browns, 20-30 minutes. Allow to rest 5 minutes before serving.

Nutrition information per serving (for 6 servings): 490 calories, 27 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 56 mg cholesterol, 42 g carbohydrates, 21 g protein, 666 mg sodium, 4 g fiber

The pasta

You must undercook the pasta before baking the casserole because the pasta cooks more in the oven. Start with a dried pasta high in durum semolina, choosing short shapes (less than 2 inches). Brown and Werlin list more than a dozen, but start with penne, gemelli, elbows or orecchiette. Skip expensive artisan imported varieties, Brown advises; spend the money on the cheese instead. Then cook that pasta in plenty of well-salted boiling water until it begins to soften but is not yet al dente — about 1 minute short of the low end of the maker's suggested cooking time. Taste to check doneness.

The cheese

Go for quality. Go for complexity. Get the latter by using a combination of cheeses. "Your dominant player is a cheese you would sit down and eat by itself: all forms of cheddar, Gruyere and Gouda," Brown says. "Cheeses that are not overwhelming." The supporting player will have stronger flavor, like a blue cheese or Parmesan. Buy from a cheese shop or grocer with a good cheese counter. Barring that, choose supermarket or mass-produced cheeses like cheddar, monterey jack and jalapeno jack, Brown says. And skip the pre-shredded. "Cheese begins to lose flavor the second it's grated," she warns.

The sauce

The key to a velvety-smooth cheese sauce that coats the pasta and other ingredients uniformly is a simple roux. That mixture forms the base for a bechamel, a simple-to-make sauce. Yet Brown has found in her years of food journalism that few people know how to make it. Here's how: Cook the fat and flour together over low heat so the flour loses its uncooked taste; slowly whisk in the milk (warm it first, she says) over medium heat to avoid lumps; cook gently until the sauce begins to thicken; add the cheese gradually, otherwise the sauce will cool and the cheese may form a giant lump.

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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