Macaroni and Cheese with Tomatoes

From Cook's Country | April​/May 2010

Why this recipe works:

Tomato started showing up in mac and cheese on menus around the turn of the 20th century and continued to appear regularly in cookbooks throughout the 1950s. Recently the combination has fallen off the radar, but we hoped to revive this once-popular recipe.

 

To pack in bright tomato… read more

Tomato started showing up in mac and cheese on menus around the turn of the 20th century and continued to appear regularly in cookbooks throughout the 1950s. Recently the combination has fallen off the radar, but we hoped to revive this once-popular recipe.

 

To pack in bright tomato flavor, we tried every type of tomato product we could think of—even ketchup and jarred tomato sauce—as we struggled to find the perfect balance of rich red color and bright tomato flavor. In the end, testers preferred canned petite diced tomatoes. But no matter how much tomato we piled into our macaroni, the tomato flavor just wasn't strong enough. After numerous tests, we discovered that undercooking the pasta and adding the tomatoes with their juices to the drained macaroni allowed the macaroni to soak up more of the tomato flavor. Returning the pasta to the heat afterward allowed the noodles to absorb some of the tomato juice.

 

Unfortunately, all that tomato flavor came at a steep price—curdled sauce. To combat the acid in the tomatoes, we added fat in the form of half-and-half (cut with some chicken broth) and a mix of sharp and mild cheddar cheese.

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Serves 8 to 10

Let the finished dish rest for 10 to 15 minutes before you serve it; otherwise it will be soupy. Barilla is our favorite brand of elbow macaroni.

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. 1. COOK MACARONI Adjust oven to middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large Dutch oven over high heat. Stir in 1 tablespoon salt and macaroni and cook until just al dente, about 6 minutes. Drain pasta and return to pot. Pour diced tomatoes with their juices over pasta and stir to coat. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until most of liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

    2. MAKE SAUCE Meanwhile, melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat until foaming. Stir in flour and cayenne and cook until golden, about 1 minute. Slowly whisk in half-and-half and broth until smooth. Bring to boil, reduce heat to medium, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture is slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Off heat, whisk in cheeses, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper until cheeses melt. Pour sauce over macaroni and stir to combine.

    3. BAKE MACARONI AND CHEESE Scrape mixture into 13 by 9-inch baking dish set in rimmed baking sheet and bake until top begins to brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Let sit for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

    MAKE AHEAD: Macaroni and cheese can be made in advance through step 2. Scrape mixture into 13 by 9-inch baking dish, cool, lay plastic wrap directly on surface of pasta, and refrigerate for up to 2 days. When ready to bake, remove plastic wrap, cover with foil, and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake until top is golden brown, about 15 minutes. Let sit for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

Tomato Appraisal

In our search for the best way to add tomato flavor to macaroni and cheese, we took several wrong turns. Here are five products that didn't work—and the one that finally did.

CANNED SOUP
Gloppy and sweet

FRESH TOMATO
Bland

KETCHUP
Save for the dogs

TOMATO PASTE
Pasty and pink

TOMATO SAUCE
Not on this pasta

OUR WINNER: PETITE DICED TOMATOES
(The right stuff—finally!)

Steeped in Tomato

We boil the elbows until they're just short of done and drain them. Then we stir the canned diced tomatoes, along with their flavorful "tomato water," into the drained pasta and cook them on the stovetop for 5 minutes so the tomato flavor can penetrate the macaroni as it continues cooking.

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