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Erica Hill: My mac and cheese is a 'hug in a baking dish'

Editor’s note: Weekend TODAY anchor Erica Hill is a huge fan of comfort food (just like the rest of us). For the next four weeks, she’ll be sharing her favorite soul-warming recipes. First up: her mouthwatering mac and cheese. 

Not only am I advocating a cheesy, carb-overload of this sinfully delicious comfort food, I’m throwing in the exclamation point for good measure. I recommend serving it with a beautiful side salad of greens and grape tomatoes. Before I fill you in on my homemade mac and cheese, a little background: I believe in real food. I avoid processed foods as much as possible. I love fresh fruits and vegetables, I love herbs and spices. I love trying new foods. I love to cook. I love to eat.

And I want my children to love to eat, in a healthy way, which is why we eat mac and cheese. Not every day, not every week. But we eat it. And we enjoy it. We also eat kale. And Goldfish crackers, salmon, apples, cookies and ice cream.

If I can teach my kids to appreciate healthy, delicious, real foods, and to appreciate treats in moderation, I am hopeful I can raise boys without a complex about food. I don’t want them to worry about one extra cookie on a random Tuesday, and how many minutes it will take them to burn it off on the treadmill. I’ve been there, and it’s not fun. I want them to enjoy a meal without obsessing, to order the mac and cheese, but to know that while we all need calcium, it wouldn’t be good for your body to consume it like this on a regular basis.

It’s all about moderation. So, yes, add the exclamation point! And stop beating yourself up.

Now, more about my mac and cheese. The original recipe came from my awesome mom, Cheryl. I loved it as a kid, and it was probably one of the first recipes I asked for when I moved to San Francisco after college. It’s a hug in a baking dish. And I’m proud to say it was also a big hit with my husband when we had just started dating. I’m not saying it’s what ultimately hooked him, but I’m not denying Cheryl’s mac and cheese was a draw.

My mom always made it with extra sharp cheddar and paprika. The paprika is the key.

Over the years, I’ve started experimenting a bit. When we lived in Atlanta, we spent a lot of time eating and drinking with our neighbors. One night, our dear friends, John and Glen, served the most delicious mac and cheese I’d ever had. Yes, it actually beat my mom’s. The secret? More cheese! Gruyere, to be precise. Thanks to them, I kicked my signature dish up a notch with now two types of cheese: extra sharp cheddar and gruyere.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with cumin, a delicious spice that adds a little extra warmth to seemingly mundane dishes like roasted Brussels sprouts. I threw a little in my latest mac and cheese and was pleasantly surprised. So I encourage you to experiment with this recipe – try one of your favorite cheeses, or seasoned bread crumbs. Whatever you do, just enjoy it – and make sure you share.

Erica's mac and cheese

  • 1 lb pasta (I use fusilli)
  • 4 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 4 tbsp flour
  • 1 1/2 - 2 cups milk at room temperature (whole or 2% work best)
  • 10 oz extra sharp cheddar cheese, cut in small cubes or grated
  • 10 oz gruyere, cut in small cubes or grated
  • ¾ tsp paprika
  • 1/8 tsp cumin (optional)
  • 1/8 - 1/4 tsp ground pepper
  • 1/2 - 3/4 cup bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 375.

Cook and drain pasta according to package directions.

In heavy saucepan over moderate heat, melt butter, while constantly swirling. Once liquefied (do not allow it to turn brown - it should look creamy), add flour and whisk the mixture together until smooth to make a roux.

While still whisking, slowly add about ½ cup of milk to the mixture. Once blended, add about 1/3 of the cheese. Stir cheese mixture continuously as cheese melts to avoid burning. Add spices, then more cheese and milk in batches.

Once cheese mixture is melty and delicious, add cooked pasta to the cheese, mix well. Pour into 9x13 baking dish, top with bread crumbs and bake until top is golden brown and cheese is bubbling along sides, 20 to 30 minutes depending on your oven.

Serve with light green salad and enjoy!

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