Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. I so badly want to care enough to make all the cute little heart-shaped foods for my family. In reality, the kids wouldn’t care. Like at all. I could spend hours in the kitchen trying to make the Pinterest-perfect Valentine school lunch, and they would probably be like, “Wow, a heart…” for a brief second and then move on. Actually, they would probably be mostly wowed that I packed a lunch for them at all. That’s their job.
But what would communicate love to most of them (and myself), is a good meal of mac and cheese (or in this case, shells and cheese). Man do I love some mac and cheese. When I moved to Venezuela for a year after college, my mom sent me with a Costco-sized pack of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese boxes. Oh how I treasured them and saved them for those days I really needed the comfort. Truth be told, I still have a weak spot for that terribly processed product. We stopped buying it for years, and somehow I find it in my pantry on occasion. And resist as I may try, I always have a bite. Or a lot of bites. At least they removed the artificial colors!?
These shells and cheese entered our dinner rotation when Kraft exited. At first, I was afraid the kids would reject it. I envisioned chants of, “We want the boxed kind!” But to my amazement, they ate these shells and cheese up. Maybe the different shaped pasta helped them make the transition without a fight? Not sure. And the cheeses are cheeses that we usually have on hand for snacking… sharp cheddar and colby jack. Nothing weird that kids would wrinkle their noses at. I usually use Cabot Seriously Sharp White Cheddar for the cheddar, or a sharp white cheddar from Trader Joe’s. I avoid “yellow”/orange as much as possible since the color is fake.
Though this meal is far from healthy, I love that I can at least fill it with organic whole grain pasta shells and top it with whole wheat bread crumbs. Serve it with a side of roasted broccoli and some apples, and you have a less-processed, kid-friendly meal. Plus adults like it too. I’ve made these shells and cheese for many a potluck, and I never bring any home.
So spare yourself from cutting your apples, carrots, cheese and all the things into heart shapes tomorrow, and just make this for dinner. It’s the perfect, “I love you” imho.
Shells & Cheese
For the bread crumb topping:
- 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
- ¾ cup panko bread crumbs
- 1 tsp. dried parsley
- Salt and pepper
For the pasta:
- 1 lb. pasta shapes
- 6 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 tsp. dry mustard
- ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
- 6 tbsp. all-purpose flour
- 2¼ cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 3½ cups milk
- 1 lb. colby jack cheese shredded
- 8 oz. extra sharp cheddar cheese shredded
- ground black pepper
To make the bread crumb topping, melt the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add in the panko and cook, stirring frequently, until the bread crumbs are a light golden brown. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 400˚ F. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta to the water and cook just until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Drain the pasta and leave in the colander.
Return the pot to the heat. Melt the butter over medium-high heat. Stir in the garlic, dry mustard, and cayenne, cooking just until fragrant, about 30-60 seconds. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until golden, about 1 minute. Whisk in the chicken broth and milk and continue to heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture bubbles and thickens slightly, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat. Stir in the cheeses, whisking until completely melted. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir the drained pasta into the cheese sauce.
Pour the pasta and cheese mixture into a lightly greased 9 x 13″ baking dish. Sprinkle with the bread crumb topping.* Bake 30-35 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and the bread crumbs are golden brown. (You may want to place a baking sheet on the rack underneath the baking dish to catch any sauce that bubbles over.)
*At this point, the dish can be wrapped tightly with foil and refrigerated for up to 2 days. To serve, bake covered at 400˚ F until the filling is hot throughout, about 40-45 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake until the breadcrumbs are crisp, 15-20 minutes more.