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French Onion Mac and Cheese

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For me, waking up to a bright grey sky and snow falling on a Saturday morning makes me want to bundle up and go for a nice walk through the park with my dog and maybe drink a mocha. For Dan, it means casserole, apparently. All day, he kept saying things like, "ooh, don't you want a casserole?" "Maybe we should make a casserole." "I just want something warm and gooey... like a casserole." We often joke that on menus at Korean restaurants, anything baked in an earthenware dish is labeled a "casserole," so I felt the need to clarify.

"Like... a lasagna or something? How about tuna noodle casserole?"

"Um, no. How about your gourmet mac and cheese?"

So much for the clarification. I had no idea that I had a gourmet mac and cheese. Turns out he was remembering a dish I'd made for a friend's Americana-themed going away party. It was just regular mac and cheese into which I tossed a bunch of pickled jalapenos, and voila! Gourmet. According to Dan, at least.

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So, I brainstormed/looked in my fridge and saw a whole lot of onions. Unfortunately, there wasn't much else that we needed for a good mac, so despite the weather outside being frightful, off to Fairway we did go. Luckily, the storm kept the usual angry hoards of shoppers with terrible defensive shopping cart driving skills at bay and we were able to make a b-line for all of the cheese my heart desired. Not a huge mac and cheese fan myself, I decided to go "gourmet," as Dan requested, by caramelizing all of my (admittedly kind of old) onions and packing it with Gruyere galore.

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To capture the flavor of the French Onion Soup broth, I caramelized my onions and then de-glazed the pan with a splash of red wine. Had I had it, I might have added some beef stock to make a very small amount of broth to replace some of the milk. Feel free to experiment as you like!

With the toasted panko topping, it really hit all of the notes of a great French Onion Soup. It turned out to be a cheesy, homey treat to end a very blustery day, with tons of leftovers to spare. Which, I suppose is ideal since more snow is on the way!

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French Onion Mac and Cheese

1 lb elbow macaroni

1 large red onion, finely sliced

1 tbsp olive oil

1/2 cup dry red wine

2 3/4 cups milk

2 Tbsp unsalted butter, 4 Tbsp unsalted butter

4 Tbsp all-purpose flour

10 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated

8 ounces cheddar cheese, grated

1/2 tsp coarsely ground pepper

Salt

Pinch nutmeg

1/2 cup panko break crumbs

8 ounces crumbled bacon or chopped ham (optional)

1. In a large skillet on medium-low heat, add olive oil and 2 Tsbp butter. Once butter is melted, add onions and cook, stirring. Add a pinch of salt. You may have to adjust the heat, depending on your burner temperature, but continue to cook until the onions go past being clear and begin to brown. Allow them to brown slightly, without them drying up. Here's a really good, in-depth guide to caramelizing onions. It may take up to 30-40 minutes.

2. Once your onions are almost completely caramelized pour in the wine. Cook until the wine has evaporated almost entirely, leaving you with slightly soupy onions. Put onions aside.

3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

4. In a large pot, cook the macaroni according to the box's instructions. Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan on medium heat; don't boil it though! Melt the butter in another pot and add the flour. Cook on low heat while whisking for about 2 minutes. Then, begin pouring in the milk while whisking and cook for a few minutes more, until thickened. Take off the heat and stir in cheese, pepper, nutmeg, and salt to taste (definitely taste since cheeses will vary in saltiness). Add in macaroni, onions and bacon/ham if using. Stir.

5. Pour macaroni mixture into an 8x8 baking dish and spread into even layer. Top with panko. Bake for 35 - 40 minutes, or until the top has browned and cheese is bubbly.

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