Monday, February 27, 2012

Makeover Monday: Secret Ingredient Baked Mac & Cheese

Raise your hand if you like mac & cheese.  Keep your hand raised if you would like it more if it had less fat and fewer calories, but still tasted great.  I'm imagining everyone reading this still has their hands raised.  If your hand is in the air, keep on reading.  And you can put your hand down now.

This is a casserole-like mac & cheese.  It consists of cooked elbow noodles in a homemade cheese sauce, with a secret ingredient that gives it creaminess without fat, and is topped with buttery Ritz crackers.  To be totally honest, I didn't think this recipe was amazing.  While I think most foods are better made from scratch, when it comes to mac & cheese, I've got the blue box blues.  I love Kraft macaroni and cheese!  

But I made this baked mac & cheese for my husband and a friend of his and they absolutely loved it.  I think the only thing that prevented them from polishing off the whole pan in one sitting was fear of their intestines exploding.  I didn't say anything about my secret ingredient.  I just sat, watched, and grinned as they gobbled it up.  Some things are better left unsaid.

The original recipe I found for this dish called for 5 cups of whole milk and 4 cups of cheddar cheese.  That's a lot of fat and I knew I had to cut it out before I would be making this.  An obvious choice was using skim milk instead of whole milk.  I use skim milk to make my boxed mac & cheese anyway!  I also wanted to cut out some of the cheese without losing the cheese flavor.  So instead of 4 cups of regular cheddar cheese, I used 3 cups of sharp cheddar cheese.  Sharp cheddar has a stronger taste so you can get away with using less.  And now for my secret...I made half as much cheese sauce as recommended and replaced it with canned pumpkin.  Yeah, I did.  

It really turned out well.  Because mac & cheese is orange tinted anyway, no one noticed the pumpkin.  And the boldness of the sharp cheddar masked any pumpkin taste.  The pumpkin has a creaminess that is similar to the cheese sauce, but with only 100 calories, no fat, and a ton of Vitamin A.  

My only complaint about this dish was that it was a little dryer than I would have liked.  I may have over-baked mine which caused it to be a little dry, but just for good measure, next time I make this I am going to add a little vegetable broth to add moisture and a little extra flavor while still keeping it vegetarian.  I might also add some paprika.  I added some to a plate of leftovers I reheated and I thought it gave it a nice burst of flavor.

To make this baked mac & cheese, start with the cheese sauce by melting the butter and whisking in the flour, onion powder, salt, and pepper.  Next time I'm adding some paprika at this step too.
We've done this before.  Just another sauce!  Now gradually, and I mean gradually, whisk in the milk.
Let it simmer for about 10 minutes to thicken.  Oh yeah, while you're making the sauce, cook some macaroni noodles. 
Add the cheese and whisk until it melts.
Secret ingredient time!  Stir in that pumpkin.  
Now you've made your own reduced-fat cheese sauce.  Hurray!  Drain your noodles and stir the noodles and sauce together.  I returned the noodles to the pot I used to cook them, and poured the sauce into the pot.  Then pour the mixture into a 9x13-inch baking dish and top with Ritz crackers that have been mixed with melted margarine.  Major wow factor!
Put it in a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes, or until it's nice and bubbly.  And according to my husband and his friend, the next step is to just totally devour it!

Secret Ingredient Baked Mac & Cheese
1 lb elbow pasta
1/4 cup unsalted butter or margarine
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp onion powder
salt and pepper, to taste
2 1/2 cups skim milk
3 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup pumpkin puree
15 Ritz crackers, crushed
1 Tbsp butter or margarine, melted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Cook pasta in a large pot according to package directions to al dente.  Drain and return to pot.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter.  Whisk in the flour.  Add the onion powder, salt, and pepper.  Gradually whisk in the milk.  Cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens and the mixture begins to boil.  Add the cheese and stir until the cheese is melted.  Stir in the pumpkin.
Add cheese sauce to pasta and stir to coat the pasta.  Pour the mixture into a 9x13-inch baking dish.
To make the topping: stir together the crushed Ritz crackers and the melted butter until all of the crumbs are moistened, and then sprinkle over the top of the pasta mixture.
Bake for 30 minutes, until golden and bubbly.  Let stand 10 minutes and serve.

Recipe adapted from Brown Eyed Baker


  1. Have you ever tried freezing this? I'm wondering about doubling it and freezing half--what do you think?

  2. I have never frozen it, but I don't see why you couldn't. If you try it, let me know how it turns out!