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Healthy Thanksgiving Hack: Mac and Cheese

Make a creamy sauce sans butter or flour.

With the holidays come indulgences, but that doesn't mean you can't fit in quick workouts and make healthier versions of your favorite Thanksgiving dishes. In this series, Julia Heffelfinger, a Denver-based recipe developer, shares culinary tips for reinventing classic comfort foods. Previously, she showed us how to use garlic confit instead of butter for creamy mashed potatoes and how to use chia seeds in apple crisp in lieu of flour. This week: how to elevate mac and cheese.

"The secret to making a healthier cheese sauce is an ingredient called sodium citrate," says Heffelfinger. "It's a flavorless powder derived from citrus fruits that has the ability to emulsify sauces by preventing the dairy fat and water in cheese from separating (which is what gives you a stringy texture)," she explains. "In addition to a silky-smooth consistency, it can make harder (and more flavorful) aged cheeses melt down more easily."

Pro tip: The sauce will only be as flavorful as the cheese so opt for something nutty and sharp like a Tillamook aged cheddar or a robust blue.

Baked Mac and Cheese with Greens 

Serves 8 

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing 
  • Kosher salt
  • 16 ounces whole wheat fusilli
  • 3 cups 2% milk  
  • 4 teaspoons sodium citrate
  • 8 ounces aged white cheddar, shredded 
  • 6 ounces gruyere, shredded 
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard 
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire 
  • 1 tablespoon hot sauce
  • 1 small bunch lacinato kale, stemmed and chopped  
  • Pepper 
  • ¾ cup panko or fresh bread crumbs 
  • 1 teaspoon chopped thyme leaves 
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest 

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and grease a 12-inch cast-iron skillet or 9-by-13-inch baking dish with olive oil.

  2. In a large saucepan of salted boiling water, cook the pasta until al dente, about 10 minutes. Drain well.

  3. In the same saucepan, whisk the milk with the sodium citrate until dissolved. Bring the mixture to a simmer over moderate heat. Whisk in the cheese, ¼ cup at a time, until smooth and the sauce is thickened, about five minutes. Whisk in the mustard, Worcestershire, and hot sauce. Fold in the kale and pasta until the greens are wilted. Season with salt and pepper. Scrape into the prepared skillet.

  4. In a medium bowl, mix the panko with the two tablespoons of olive oil, thyme, lemon zest, ½ teaspoon of salt, and ½ teaspoon of pepper. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs evenly over the pasta. Bake the mac and cheese for 20 minutes, until bubbling and the top is browned. Let stand for 5 minutes then serve while still warm.