Okay, this is so eerily like the baked mac & cheese of my childhood that just the smell of it bubbling away in the oven has the power to bring on some serious visceral flashbacks (not those kind of flashbacks). While it's axiomatic that everyone's mom, dad, and/or grandmother/grandfather made The Best Macaroni and Cheese in the World, in our house it was actually true, because both of my parents possessed the quasi-alchemical ability to elevate the basest, most homely "comfort" food to a level of golden, Platonic perfection only imagined by lesser mortals.
And while I'm not going to claim that anything we make as grown-ups can hit that psycho-emotional sweet spot that our parents' cooking did - except, if we're lucky, for our own kids - I will say that this came pretty damn close. (In fact, the first time I made it, my omnivorous oldest son ate a big bowl, assuming his grandmother had sent it, and didn't realize it was vegan until I told him, so HA!)
For The Absolutely Perfect Comfort Meal, I recommend serving this with BBQ tempeh "wings," garlicky greens, and sweet potatoes, but it's so substantial that it can easily be a meal all by itself. If you want to be all classy and post-modern, you could use panko for the topping, but I strongly suggest going for that home-cooked, 1970s casserole gusto with the "buttered" cracker crumbs. Next time you're feeling a little bashed about, or just in need of some carbohydrate-based comfort, whip up a pan of this stuff, and I can absolutely guarantee that you'll feel better about the world and your place in it.
Classic Baked Macaroni & Cheese
~ 2-3 tbsp. Earth Balance or a neutral oil such as canola (or a combination)
~ 1 large yellow onion, chopped
~ 3 tbsp. flour
~ 1 tsp. each: salt, paprika, dry mustard
~ 1/2 tsp. turmeric
~ 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
~ A few generous grinds of black pepper
~ 2 bay leaves
~ 5-6 cups plain, unsweetened soy milk
~ 1 tbsp. each: vegan Worcestershire sauce, prepared English mustard
~ 1 tsp. each: Marmite, hot sauce (I like Frank's)
~ 2 cups shredded vegan cheese (Daiya, Cheerly, Trader Joe's, FYH, etc.)
~ 1/2 cup nutritional yeast
~ 1 lb. pasta, cooked and drained according to package directions (medium shells are nice, but for this recipe I really like chicciole, which are sort of fat, semi-relaxed elbows)
~ Preheat the oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit.
~ In a large saucepan, saute the chopped onion in the margarine and/or oil for 20 minutes over medium-low heat, until softened, golden, and beginning to caramelize (don't let them brown!).
~ Stir in the flour and dried seasonings, stir continually for a minute or so, then add the bay leaves.
~ Begin adding the milk, gradually, whisking all the while to prevent clumping.
~ Add the Worcestershire, mustard, Marmite, and hot sauce. Stir thoroughly, and then begin adding the shredded cheese, about 1/4 cup at a time; making sure it all melts before adding more.
~ Stir in the nutritional yeast, and combine thoroughly. Once you have a nice, smooth sauce, remove the bay leaves, take the sauce off the heat, and mix with the cooked pasta.
~ 1-1.5 cup crushed Ritz crackers, or similar (I use a whole sleeve for this!)
~ 1 tbsp. margarine, melted
~ Paprika for garnish
~ Smash up the crackers until they're very fine.
~ In a small bowl, mix the crumbs with the melted margarine and paprika. (Complicated, innit?)
~ Coat a 9 x 13" casserole with cooking spray.
~ Pour the pasta mixture into the casserole, top with the cracker crumbs, and cover with foil.
~ Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.
~ Uncover and bake another 15 minutes or so, until the topping is browned (watch it so it doesn't burn).
~ Remove from oven and allow to sit about 10 minutes before serving.