An Almost Purist Mac-and-Cheese
Like pizza, hot dogs and burgers during the 80s, another American (stalwart) comfort food staple - macaroni and cheese - was conferred Blank Slate status in the last decade, its utter familiarity a springboard for multiple chefs' creative tweaks and reinvention. As a culture we've moved far beyond the addition of bacon or caramelized onions to this culinary classic; some innovations sublime and decadent (lobster, shaved black truffles), others gratuitous and silly (pepperoni?). Particularly welcome seems the introduction of vegetables such as Melissa Clark's wildly popular and tweeted version with grated carrots. Cafe Drake went Back to Basics with the original recipe borrowed from Philadelphia's and NYC's historic Automat restaurant empire, tossing in halved grape tomatoes and shredded scallions because we had them on hand. The nostalgic results were deeply satisfying. Our only other adaptations were the inclusion of Parmesan, Panko crumbs and dry mustard, the latter's sharp notes buffeting the richness as does the acidity of tomatoes.
If using tomatoes: slice 10-12 grape tomatoes in half and toss lightly with kosher salt. Set aside for 30 minutes before draining accumulated liquid and patting tomatoes dry. This step is important to prevent a watery final dish.
Boil 1/2 lb. elbow noodles (or any other type of small pasta shapes you prefer) in plenty of well-salted water until just tender. Drain and set aside. Do not rinse.
While the pasta is boiling, make your cheese sauce. Begin by melting 4 T. of butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in 4 T. of flour and saute for a minute or two before adding - slowly - 3 cups of milk. Cook, stirring often, until the white sauce begins to thicken slightly. Season with salt and black pepper (you'll need a good amount of each), about 1/4 - 1/2 t. grated nutmeg, 1/2 t. dry mustard and a few dashes of your favorite hot sauce. Now stir in 2 cups of grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese and stir until cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth.
When ready, stir cheese sauce into drained pasta (a large mixing bowl is helpful here) along with the drained tomatoes and 2-3 thinly sliced scallions. Transfer all to a lightly greased casserole dish. Sprinkle about 1/4 cup grated Parmesan across the top and then do the same with an equal amount of dried bread crumbs.
Bake at 350 degrees F. for 40-50 minutes or until the casserole appears golden brown. Serve warm, not hot - allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving.