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HEALTHY plate —A more healthful macaroni and cheese

There's nothing quite as comforting as homemade macaroni and cheese, all creamy inside and crunchy on top. Of course, traditional versions of this classic usually call for at least two cups of cheese, a stick of butter and whole milk or cream. That might be comforting, but it's hardly healthy.

This recipe for a lighter mac and cheese is every bit as satisfying, with just about a third of the fat.

Making that work is all a matter of knowing where to cut the fat, and where to keep it.

The sauce, for example, begins with a base of fat-free milk (rather than whole) mixed with flour.

But for the cheese, we stick with full-fat extra-sharp cheddar, which has tons more flavor than reduced-fat varieties and preserves the "cheesiness" of the dish. The quantity of cheese is cut in half.

A few teaspoons of Dijon mustard and a pinch ground ancho chili pepper are added to further intensify the flavor and make up for reducing the cheese and other fats.

Ancho chili works nicely because it has a sweet, paprika-like flavor and moderate heat, but you can substitute cayenne or any other ground chili pepper if you prefer.

To add some creaminess while cutting the fat even further, the rest of the cheese and all of the butter in the sauce are replaced with 2-percent cottage cheese that has been pureed in a blender or food processor.

Using a little oil, instead of butter, combined with plain dry breadcrumbs and a flavorful grated cheese makes a much lighter crunchy topping. Using a high-quality, hard cheese such as Parmesan or Grana Padano will give you more flavor for your money (and calories).

Finally, whole-grain elbow macaroni adds important fiber and other nutrients.

**FOR USE WITH AP LIFESTYLES** Comfort food does not have to also mean unhealthy. A few careful ingredient changes from the classic recipe gives this Macaroni and Cheese Light, shown on Jan. 29, 2008, the flavor you look for with much less fat. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe) - AP