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Mac + Cheese, or Mac + Comfort?

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"The Mac + Cheese Cookbook: 50 Simple Recipes from Homeroom, America's Favorite Mac and Cheese Restaurant" by Allison Arevalo and Erin Wade (Ten Speed Press, $16.99).

If there's anything that can take your mind off all of the holiday planning, grocery shopping and cooking you may have to do in the upcoming months, it is probably "The Mac + Cheese Cookbook." America's favorite comfort food may just comfort you not only when you are eating it, but also when you're preparing it.

This compilation of 50 classic and creative recipes is from Allison Arevalo and Erin Wade of Homeroom, an Oakland, Calif., macaroni and cheese hotspot — or make that soft spot for the comfort that seems to be stirred up in every bowl alongside the noodles and sauce.

There is certainly a lot of variety included to move your mind from stressed to soothed. Start with a whole chapter of American classics from wherever you may have first lifted a fork as a hungry toddler. Perhaps that was for a Vermont White Cheddar Mac or the Gilroy Mac from the country's garlic capital. Even if you are from a distant land, or fondly remember a recipe from one, you'll find macs almost as fun as a trip in the international chapter. Exotic ingredients are in the mix, too, highlighted in their own chapter, like truffles and Dungeness crab.

If you don't believe mac + cheese can be gourmet, this gem of a book will undoubtedly change your mind, including the many wine and beer pairing suggestions. Comfort and ease, though, is never forgotten, like with this Homeroom three-cheese specialty modeled after "the addictive Greek pastry spanakopita."

"MACXIMUS"

1 / 2 pound dried elbow pasta

1 cup crumbled feta cheese

1 / 2 cup grated Jack cheese

1 / 2 cup grated pecorino cheese

2 teaspoons minced shallots

1 / 2 cup thawed frozen chopped spinach, thoroughly drained

1 / 2 cup canned artichoke hearts, drained

2 cups Mac Sauce (recipe follows)

1 / 2 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs available at many supermarkets)

Yields 4 servings.

Cook the pasta in salted boiling water until a little less than al dente. Drain, rinse with cold water, and drain the pasta again.

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Add the feta, Jack, pecorino, shallots, spinach, artichokes and sauce to a large, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat.

Stir until the cheeses begin to melt, about 4 minutes (the feta will not melt —- so you are just looking for the pecorino and Jack to melt and the mixture to get hot).

Slowly add the cooked pasta and stir until hot. Pour into a 12-inch baking dish and top with the panko. Bake until bubbly, 10 to 15 minutes.

Spoon into bowl and serve hot.

MAC SAUCE

3 cups whole milk

1 / 2 cup unsalted butter

1 / 2 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons kosher salt or 1 teaspoon table salt

Yields 3 cups (see Note)

Heat the milk in a pot over medium heat until it just starts to bubble, but is not boiling, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Heat the butter over medium heat in a separate heavy-bottomed pot. When the butter has just melted, add the flour and whisk constantly until the mixture turns light brown, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

Slowly pour the warm milk, about 1 cup at a time, into the butter-flour mixture, whisking constantly. It will get very thick when you first add the milk, and thinner as you slowly pour in the entire 3 cups. This is normal.

Once all the milk has been added, set the pot back over medium-high heat, and continue to whisk constantly. In the next 2 to 3 minutes the sauce should come together and become silky and thick. Use the spoon test to make sure it's ready. To do this, dip a metal spoon into the sauce —- if the sauce coats the spoon and doesn't slide off like milk, you'll know it's ready. You should be able to run your finger along the spoon and have the impression remain. Add the salt.

The Mac Sauce is ready to use immediately and does not need to cool. Store it in the refrigerator for a day or two if you want to make it ahead of time —- it will get a lot thicker when you put it in the refrigerator, so it may need a little milk to thin it out a bit when it comes time to melt in the cheese. Try melting the cheese into the sauce first, and if it is too thick, then add milk as needed.

Note: "This recipe makes three cups of sauce — the recipes call for two," the authors write. "But it is wise to make a little extra in case someone wants their mac a bit saucier. It is also somewhat difficult to make only two cups of sauce because you don't have much liquid to work with."

Lisa Messinger is a first-place winner in food writing from the Association of Food Journalists and the author of seven food books, including "Mrs. Cubbison's Best Stuffing Cookbook" and "The Sourdough Bread Bowl Cookbook." She also writes the Creators News Service "After-Work Gourmet" column. To find out more about Lisa Messinger and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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