Macaroni and cheese

Macaroni and cheese (Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune)

6 ounces goat cheese, crumbled

2 ounces Muenster, grated

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, diced

3 ounces provolone, grated

1/4 cup plan breadcrumbs

1 Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Toss garlic with oil; wrap in foil. Bake until cloves are soft, 15-20 minutes. Allow to cool. Pop cloves from skins; mash into a paste.

2 Meanwhile, heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in the spinach; cook just until wilted, 30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon; drain. When cool, squeeze out liquid. Add pasta to boiling water; cook until just beginning to soften; it should not yet be al dente. Drain; rinse the pasta. Return it to the pot.

3 Melt butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat; stir in flour. Cook, stirring, until mixture turns slightly beige, is bubbly and appears to have grown in volume, 1 minute. Increase heat to medium; slowly whisk in the milk. Heat until just beginning to bubble, whisking frequently. Reduce heat to low; stir in thyme and lemon zest. Simmer, 2 minutes.

4 Add goat and Muenster cheeses by 1/2-cup measures, stirring until cheese melts before adding more. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir garlic, spinach and olives into pasta. Pour sauce over pasta; stir to coat. Transfer to a buttered 13-by-9-inch baking pan. Combine provolone and breadcrumbs; sprinkle over dish.

5 Bake until cheese sauce is bubbly and topping browns, 20-30 minutes. Allow to rest 5 minutes before serving.

Nutrition information per serving (for 6 servings): 490 calories, 27 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 56 mg cholesterol, 42 g carbohydrates, 21 g protein, 666 mg sodium, 4 g fiber

The pasta

You must undercook the pasta before baking the casserole because the pasta cooks more in the oven. Start with a dried pasta high in durum semolina, choosing short shapes (less than 2 inches). Brown and Werlin list more than a dozen, but start with penne, gemelli, elbows or orecchiette. Skip expensive artisan imported varieties, Brown advises; spend the money on the cheese instead. Then cook that pasta in plenty of well-salted boiling water until it begins to soften but is not yet al dente — about 1 minute short of the low end of the maker's suggested cooking time. Taste to check doneness.

The cheese

Go for quality. Go for complexity. Get the latter by using a combination of cheeses. "Your dominant player is a cheese you would sit down and eat by itself: all forms of cheddar, Gruyere and Gouda," Brown says. "Cheeses that are not overwhelming." The supporting player will have stronger flavor, like a blue cheese or Parmesan. Buy from a cheese shop or grocer with a good cheese counter. Barring that, choose supermarket or mass-produced cheeses like cheddar, monterey jack and jalapeno jack, Brown says. And skip the pre-shredded. "Cheese begins to lose flavor the second it's grated," she warns.

The sauce

The key to a velvety-smooth cheese sauce that coats the pasta and other ingredients uniformly is a simple roux. That mixture forms the base for a bechamel, a simple-to-make sauce. Yet Brown has found in her years of food journalism that few people know how to make it. Here's how: Cook the fat and flour together over low heat so the flour loses its uncooked taste; slowly whisk in the milk (warm it first, she says) over medium heat to avoid lumps; cook gently until the sauce begins to thicken; add the cheese gradually, otherwise the sauce will cool and the cheese may form a giant lump.