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Eric Akis: Mac and cheese with meaty gusto

Two widely popular pasta dishes in Canada are macaroni and cheese, and just about any type of pasta topped with a tomatoey meat sauce.
It's the season for comfort-food casseroles. In Eric Akis's Mac and Cheese with Marvellous Meat Sauce, macaroni and cheese is baked on top of a rich ground-meat sauce.

Two widely popular pasta dishes in Canada are macaroni and cheese, and just about any type of pasta topped with a tomatoey meat sauce. If you have a craving for both, don’t choose one over the other: Combine the two, bake and create a very tasty, hearty, family friendly casserole.

In today’s recipe, the process begins by making the meat sauce. Ground beef is cooked several minutes with bits of onion, celery and carrot. When the meat is crumbly and cooked through, stir in some garlic, oregano, pepper flakes and tomato paste and cook two minutes more. Stir in a jar of passata di pomodoro, also called strained tomatoes (see Note 1), then simmer the sauce for 20 minutes, to thicken it and enrich its flavour.

When ready, the sauce is spooned into a casserole. Make a pot of macaroni and cheese, then set large spoonfuls of the mac and cheese on top of the meat sauce, creating a separate layer.

The last steps are to top the casserole with grated cheese, then cook it in the oven until the meat sauce is bubbling and the macaroni and cheese is golden on top.

This comfort-food casserole is at its sauciest, cheesiest best when baked right after assembling it. But as I note in my options, you can also make it oven-ready in advance, cool it, refrigerate, then bake the casserole later in the day, or even the next day.

To make a fine Sunday supper, serve the meaty macaroni and cheese with a green salad and some dinner rolls or garlic bread. This casserole would also be great to serve at a potluck.

Mac and Cheese with Marvellous Meat Sauce

This home-style, family friendly casserole sees saucy, cheesy macaroni baked on top of a rich and tomatoey meat sauce.

Preparation time: 45 minutes

Cooking time: About 60 minutes

Makes: Eight to 10 servings

For the meat sauce

500 grams lean ground beef

1/2 cup finely chopped white or yellow onion

1/3 cup finely chopped celery

1/3 cup grated carrot

1 or 2 large garlic cloves, minced

1 tsp dried oregano

• pinch or 2 red pepper flakes

2 Tbsp tomato paste

1 (680 to 720 mL) jar passata di pomodoro (see Note 1)

1/3 cup water

• salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place the beef, onion, celery and carrot in a pot set over medium to medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is crumbly and cooked through. Carefully drain off the excess fat/liquid in the pot. Mix in the garlic, oregano, pepper flakes and tomato paste and cook and stir two minutes more.

Pour the passata into the pot. Pour the water into passata bottle, shake it, then pour that liquid into the pot, too. Season the meat sauce with salt and pepper, then bring to a gentle simmer (small bubbles should just break on the surface). Adjust the heat as needed to maintain that simmer. Simmer meat sauce, uncovered, for 20 minutes.

Remove pot from the heat, taste, then season meat sauce with more salt and pepper, if needed. Pour the sauce into the bottom of a 13- x 9-inch casserole (mine was 23Ú4-inches tall) and proceed as noted below.

For the mac and cheese and to finish

2 3/4 cups elbow macaroni

1/4 cup butter

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

3 1/4 cups warm 2 per cent or whole milk (see Note 2)

250 grams old or extra-old cheddar cheese, grated

• salt and white pepper to taste

• pinch or 2 smoked or regular paprika

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley (optional)

Bring a large of pot of salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook until just tender, about seven to eight minutes.

While macaroni cooks, melt butter in a medium-to-large pot set over medium heat (my pot was eight inches wide and six inches tall). Mix in the flour and cook and stir one to two minutes, until well blended.

Whisk and dribble in 3Ú4 cup of the warm milk. Cook until the mixture is quite thick. Slowly whisk in the remaining milk. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently, so the sauce does not scorch the bottom. Cook one minute to thicken, then remove the white sauce from the heat.

Gradually stir three-quarters of the cheddar cheese into the white sauce, until it’s just melted and well combined. Season the sauce with salt, white pepper and paprika.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Using a large spoon, carefully set the macaroni and cheese on top of the meat sauce, completely covering it. Sprinkle on the remaining cheddar cheese and the Parmesan cheese.

Set the casserole in the oven and bake for 30 minutes, or until the meat sauce on the bottom is bubbling. Turn the oven to broil and broil the casserole until it’s a rich golden on top, about one to two minutes. Sprinkle with parsley, if using, and serve.

Note 1: Passata di pomodoro is sold in tall bottles at Italian-style food stores and most supermarkets. It’s also known as strained tomatoes, because to make it, crushed tomatoes are passed through a sieve, creating a smooth, versatile sauce.

Note 2: Using warm milk to make the sauce will cause it to thicken more quickly and, thus, be less likely to scorch on the bottom. The milk can be warmed to just below a simmer in the microwave or in a pot on the stove set over medium-low heat.

Eric’s options: This casserole can be made oven-ready in advance, cooled to room temperature, covered and stored in the refrigerator for up to a day and baked later. Allow 10 or so minutes more baking time, as the casserole will be cold when you start to bake it.

This casserole, unbaked, also freezes well. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight before baking. You could also divide the meat sauce and macaroni and cheese between two smaller casseroles.

To create more of an Italian-style casserole, replace the cheddar cheese with a grated Italian-style cheese, or mix two or three of them, such as mozzarella, asiago or provolone.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks, including seven in his Everyone Can Cook series. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.