It was teacher appreciation week at my daughter's preschool. I volunteered to bring a dish for the lunch potluck. What dish to bring? I needed something that everybody likes, that looks cute, is easily transferable and can be ready in under one hour. And there you have it... Mac and Cheese Bites! I mean really, who doesn't love Mac and Cheese, and especially when made into cute individual portions that can fit in a tupperware without worrying about car spills. I prefer to buy blocks of cheese and grate them at home because store bought grated cheese is often coated with starch, which affects the texture once melted. Not to mention that you actually know the source of your cheese, and it is economical.
1/2 pound of mini elbow macaroni
1/2 cup of finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
4 ounces of mild cheddar cheese shredded
1 1/2 tablespoon of unsalted butter, plus more for brushing the muffin pan
1 1/2 tablespoon of flour
1 1/2 cup of milk (I used 2% but you can use fat free or whole milk)
1 teaspoon of smoked paprika
1 teaspoon of salt, plus more for the pasta water
1/2 teaspoon of ground black pepper
pinch of nutmeg (I like to use freshly grated nutmeg)
Preheat oven to 425°F (218°C or Gas Mark 7) and make sure that the oven rack is positioned in the upper third of the oven.
Prepare the muffin pan by buttering each muffin cup and sprinkling Parmigiano. Shake and remove excess by tapping on the pan.
Bring water to boil in a big pot, add a generous pinch of salt to water and add the mini elbow macaroni - cook according to directions. Strain in a bowl and let it cool down a bit, then add the egg and smoked paprika and mix.
In a pan, melt the butter and add flour. With a wooden spoon, stir the mixture to cook the flour (this is called roux and it is the base of Bechamel sauce), add the milk gradually, while stirring the mixture. As the temperature of the sauce increases, you will notice that it thickens. This signals that it's time to add the nutmeg, salt and pepper. This is the famous french Bechamel sauce. At this point add the cheddar cheese and stir until it is melted and fully incorporated.
Add the cheese sauce to the pasta mixture and stir until fully incorporated.
Spoon the mixture into each muffin cup and gently pack it. Sprinkle the rest of Parmigiano on each cup.
Bake the Mac and Cheese for around 12 minutes until bubbly and crispy. If you feel that it needs more color on top, set the oven on broil for 1 minute or until the desired color is reached.
Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool down. Step away from the pan... yes you heard me. I know that you are impatient and you want to remove the heavenly bites from the pan but no... step away. I can tell you from experience, I didn't step away and I tried to remove one before it cooled down and the thing fell apart. (Needless to say, it didn't go to waste, it was the chef's reward)