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Classic baked mac cheese — Ingredients: 8 ounces fusilli or other short pasta, 4 teaspoons unsalted butter, plus 1 teaspoon more for the baking dish, 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, 2 cups whole milk heated, 1 bay leaf, pinch of freshly grated nutmeg (freshly ground nutmeg has superior flavor over already ground nutmeg), 2 1/2 cups shredded sharp white cheddar cheese, 1 1/2 cups shredded Gruyère cheese.
Preparation: Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Reserve 1 cup of cooking water. Then, drain the pasta. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Meanwhile, melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook continuing to whisk for 2 minutes. Then, whisk in the milk. Add the bay leaf, nutmeg and 1 tablespoon of salt. Simmer, whisking occasionally, until thick about 8 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and stir in 2 cups cheddar cheese and the Gruyère. Stir in the pasta and the reserved cooking water to make a loose sauce. Butter a 2-quart baking dish. Add the pasta mixture and top with the remaining 1/2 cup cheddar. Bake 15 minutes.
Butternut blue cheese — Peel and cube 1 small butternut squash, roast at 425 degrees until tender, about 20 minutes. Make classic baked mac and cheese, using 2 1/2 cups cheddar in the sauce and replacing the Gruyère with 3/4 cup crumbled blue cheese; add the squash. Top with 1/4 cup each cheddar and blue cheese and broil until melted. Do not bake.
Italian — Make classic baked mac and cheese, replacing the cheddar in the sauce and on top with fontina. Top with 1/4 cup each panko, (Japanese bread crumbs, available in the Asian section of the supermarket) and grated parmesan before baking.
Truffle — Sauté 1 pound sliced mushrooms in olive oil until browned. Make classic baked mac and cheese, replacing the cheddar in the sauce with 2 cups of grated truffle cheese. Add the mushrooms; top with 1/4 cup Gruyère replacing the cheddar.
Onion lovers — Cook 2 sliced large onions in butter until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Make classic baked mac and cheese, adding the onions and 1 bunch chopped scallions. Bake, then sprinkle with bread crumbs or crushed onion flavored potato chips.
Smoked mozzarella — Make classic baked mac and cheese, adding 1/2 cup each sliced roasted red peppers and diced smoked mozzarella. Top with the cheddar and broil until golden. Do not bake.
Bacon — Make classic baked mac and cheese; add 8 slices crumbled cooked bacon before baking.
Bacon chipotlé — Make classic baked mac and cheese, reducing the cheddar in the sauce to 1 cup and replacing the Gruyère with 2 cups chipotlés cheddar; add 2 teaspoons chopped chipotlés in adobo sauce and 8 slices crumbled cooked bacon. Top with the cheese and a mix of 1/2 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) and 1 tablespoon smoked paprika before baking.
Classic stovetop — Make classic baked mac and cheese. Skip baking step, add just enough of the reserved cooking water to make a thick sauce. Cook on low to medium heat on the stovetop until the sauce reaches your desired consistency.
French style stovetop — Make classic baked mac and cheese, cooking 2 chopped garlic cloves in the butter. Replace the cheddar in the sauce with 8 ounces brie (rind removed) and add just enough of the reserved cooking water to make a thick sauce. Stir 2 teaspoons whole-grain mustard into the sauce. Cook on low to medium heat on the stovetop until the sauce reaches your desired consistency.