Sunday, November 8, 2009

Slow Cooker: Macaroni and Cheese



I love macaroni and cheese.  I grew up on the blue box version, Kraft's Macaroni and Cheese.  I have had gourmet macaroni and cheese, with Gruyere, Parmesan, and at least two other cheeses in a cream sauce over macaroni.  In my recipe box, there are about 6 recipes for macaroni and cheese.  Imagine my delight when I discovered a healthy recipe for macaroni and cheese in my slow cooker cookbook, "Fix-It and Forget-It Lightly: Healthy, Low-Fat Recipes For Your Slow Cooker" by Phyllis Pellman Good.

The Ingredients:

1) 2 1/2 cups of fat-free or 2% milk



2) 1 egg, beaten




3) 1 tsp salt
4) dash of pepper
5) 3 cups of low-fat cheddar cheese,shredded




6) 8oz of macaroni, cooked al dente

Directions:

1) Combine all ingredients except macaroni in slow cooker.
2) Cook on high for 1 hour.
3) Add macaroni.  Cook on low 4 more hours.


The Cost:


Kroger Brand Elbow Noodles, 1 lb: $0.88.

I already had the milk, egg, salt, pepper, and cheese in my kitchen. 


Changes That I Made:

1) Obviously, I used vanilla soy milk instead of cow's milk.  I am lactose intolerant and therefore cannot drink cow's milk (or eat ice cream, it's tragic).  Fortunately, I have no problems with cheese.  I used to drink Lactose Free skim milk and thumb my nose at soy milk because it tastes funny.  My change of heart occurred when I went on a weekly food budget and noticed that soy milk is about $0.50 cents cheaper than the lactose free version.  Those pennies add up!  It took me two weeks to make the transition (mostly by mixing the two together) and now I love vanilla soymilk. As you can see, I buy the store brand.

2) This is not actually a change but more of a cook's note: the shredded cheddar looks a little weird because I forget to set it out to thaw before I prepped the ingredients.  "No matter," I thought, "it's going in to the slow cooker anyway.  It will melt." My assumption was correct, thankfully!

3) I would have used whole wheat macaroni pasta, but alas, the store did not have any that day.  It would have boosted the fiber content of the dish.  

4) I thought four more hours of cook time was extreme; after all, everything was already cooked by the time the macaroni was added.  In addition, I have had the previous experience of cooking pastas or rice too long in a slow cooker---it turns into mush.  Inedible, not to say disgusting.  I decided just another hour of cooking on high would do the trick and it was perfect.  The finished product is pictured above--don't you agree it looks great?  That extra hour really has nothing to do with cooking the already-cooked ingredients.  It lets the sauce thicken very nicely, almost showcasing the noodles, and inviting you to dig into it with a big spoon.  I couldn't resist the temptation--I had three spoonfuls right then.  Quality assurance, you understand.

Another Cook's Note

I've made macaroni and cheese on the stove-top and I noticed that there's no flour.  Instead, there's an egg.  I thought about it a bit and realized that the egg is used in place of flour as the binding and thickening agent.  When made on the stove-top, milk and butter are heated together.  When the butter is melted, you stir in the flour, and continue stirring constantly.  The gluten in the flour expands, absorbing the liquid, and  thickens the liquid, forming the base of the sauce, called a roux.  You can actually see the transformation occur; I always think it's neat.  Chemistry in action.  Being that this sauce is transformed in the slow-cooker (i.e. no stirring), mixing the egg into the liquid and the sloooow cooking process allows the egg proteins to solidify into a delicate web, catching the milk into thousands (perhaps millions?) of little pockets, thereby making the sauce.  I don't know if this hypothesis is correct but based on my memory of college chemistry, it sounds about right.

In Conclusion

This is good macaroni and cheese, on par with any basic home-made mac n' cheese and a step above the blue box.  I brought it to work for lunch and my co-workers would come into my office exclaiming, "What smells so good?!" The taste--well, I couldn't tell it was a healthy version.  For those who need a few more (healthy) calories, I ate this with raw cut up veggies on the side to help fill me up.

Enjoy!

Nutrition Per Serving (6 servings, about 1/2 cup each)
Calories: 170 (40 calories from fat)
Fat: 4.5 g
Sodium: 400mg
Carbohydrates: 15g
Protein: 17g

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