Mac & cheese can be a true comfort on a cold day, and the healthy update takes advantage of the cheddar cheese balanced with creamy low-fat cottage cheese and tucks a layer of spinach into the middle, which may help picky eaters down their vegetables. Whole-wheat pasta adds robust flavor and extra fiber.
6 tablespoons plain dry breadcrumbs, (see Tip)
2 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon paprika
2 16-ounce or 10-ounce package frozen spinach, thawed
3½ cups low-fat milk, divided
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
2 cup low-fat cottage cheese
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
16 ounces (4 cups) whole-wheat elbow macaroni, or penne
Put a large pot of water on to boil. Preheat oven to 450°F. Coat an 8-inch-square (2-quart) baking dish with cooking spray.
Mix breadcrumbs, oil and paprika in a small bowl. Place spinach in a fine-mesh strainer and press out excess moisture.
Heat 1 1/2 cups milk in a large heavy saucepan over medium-high heat until steaming. Whisk remaining 1/4 cup milk and flour in a small bowl until smooth; add to the hot milk and cook, whisking constantly, until the sauce simmers and thickens, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in Cheddar until melted. Stir in cottage cheese, nutmeg, salt and pepper.
Cook pasta for 4 minutes, or until not quite tender. (It will continue to cook during baking.) Drain and add to the cheese sauce; mix well. Spread half the pasta mixture in the prepared baking dish. Spoon the spinach on top. Top with the remaining pasta; sprinkle with the breadcrumb mixture.
Bake the casserole until bubbly and golden, 25 to 30 minutes.
*Tip: To make fresh breadcrumbs, trim crusts from whole-wheat bread. Tear bread into pieces and process in a food processor until coarse crumbs form. One slice of bread makes about 1/2 cup fresh crumbs. For dry breadcrumbs, spread the fresh crumbs on a baking sheet and bake at 250°F until crispy, about 15 minutes. One slice of fresh bread makes about 1/3 cup dry crumbs. Or use prepared coarse dry breadcrumbs. Find them in the natural-foods section of large supermarkets.