Friday, March 16, 2012

Crock Pot Mac-n-Cheese

First of all, my apologies for not having a "beauty shot" of this recipe.  I tried it out this weekend, and by the time we ate, we were so tired from our first real day of gardening that we just jumped in and started eating.  And leftovers rarely make pretty pictures -- and these didn't last long enough for multiple attempts.  So, you are left with a picture that is more of a suggestion.

Anyway, I have been looking for a custard-style mac-n-cheese recipe to try, and I found this one by A Whisk and a Prayer, which I found through Pinterest.  I made a few alterations to the recipe to better suit our tastes:

Crock Pot Mac-n-Cheese
1 1/2 cups milk
12 oz. evaporated milk (this is the large can; I used 2 of the little 5 oz. cans and was fine)
3 eggs
1/2 t. salt
3 cups shredded cheese (I used a mild Mexican blend and some sharp cheddar in about a half and half ratio)
12 oz. pasta (I used rigatoni) par cooked for 5 minutes
1/2 t. paprika
1/2 t. ground mustard
fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup shredded parmesan

Grease/spray inside of crock pot with olive oil.  Add milk, evaporated milk, eggs, salt,  and the other spices.  Whisk until blended.  (Put your crock pot on low while you do this.)

Add the 3 cups cheese and the pasta and stir gently until the pasta is coated.  Top with parmesan and some more fresh ground black pepper.

Cook on high for 30 minutes and then low for 2 1/2 hours until custard is set in center and pasta is tender.  The original notes say that it can be kept on a warm setting for 30 minutes after.

I was initially concerned that parcooking the pasta would make it mushy, but that didn't turn out to be the case, especially since I used a robust pasta like rigatoni; I was able to increase the amount of pasta from the original recipe and increase the yield.  I also changed the cheeses from the original recipe to be a bit more traditional in flavor and added paprika and mustard powder.  Finally, I eliminated some butter from the original recipe that my version didn't seem to need.

The finished product was delicious, and it was just the right vegetarian main dish for our dinner with some fresh garden greens.  I think this dish will really shine as a covered dish for the holidays; just cook it slightly less time and then take the entire crock pot along and plug it in to finish at your destination.  That eliminates the usual stress about who gets to borrow the oven, and it reduces the chances the final product will be dry from sitting too long.

The Analysis

Fast:  Crock pot recipes, by definition, are not fast.  This one sort of straddles the middle, timewise.  It is not as quick as a stove-and-oven recipe, but it doesn't require enough uninterrupted cook time for you to be able to put it in the crock pot and leave for work, even for less than an 8 hour shift.  That's a bit problematic, but I think it is well suited to weekends of garden work, when you can put this together and then leave it more or less unattended (with only one temperature change) while you dig in the dirt.

Cheap:  Milk, eggs, and cheese make this a fairly expensive dish, especially if you are as picky about your dairy as we are.  However, you can cut the cost a little by making it the vegetarian centerpiece of your meal and adding vegetables on the side; you will also get 4-6 servings out of the batch since it is so filling.

Good:  Overall, I think this is an excellent addition to my mac-n-cheese repertoire.  It is dense and creamy and very much of a main dish kind of mac!

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