Macaroni and cheese, like many “common” sounding dishes, has been misrepresented on many an occasion, whether it be powdered stuff from a box or some slop from a cafeteria. But if you show it just a little bit of love, it will love you back with some incredibly rich flavors.
So despite the many bad macaroni experiences we’ve all had, mac & cheese should not be banned from your kitchen as if it were gruel. This is not that undesirable junk that shows up on your plate at some backdoor BBQ you’d rather not be at–this is the good stuff! Plus, preparing this is actually quite simple and lends itself to experimentation. The end result is a fantastic dish with a variety of flavors going on.
If you look around for macaroni and cheese recipes, there’s really not a lot of consistency when it comes to what kind of cheese you should use–all cheddar, fontina, asiago, american (no!), etc. And let’s face it, its a tough decision because there are a lot of awesome cheeses out there and there’s no “right” answer. I decided to use a mix of four cheeses in my macaroni & cheese for different layers of flavor in my high-falootin’ sounding comfort food. On the note of comfort food, this is also my entry for this month’s Monthly Mingle hosted by Meeta at What’s for Lunch Honey.
To start, I substituted mascarpone for some of the cream so as to have an even richer, thicker, creamier base with that subtle sweetness so characteristic of mascarpone. Next, the backbone cheese, some Swiss Gruyère to provide the most body to the sauce: kind of creamy, kind of sweet, kind of salty, kind of earthy, and kind of nutty (in summary: its really good!). Finally, on top of everything, a layer of sharper flavors to provide a contrast in appearance, texture, and flavor to the more subtle, base sauce: Parmigiano Reggiano for that complex, nutty taste that everyone loves and some aged, Hickory-smoked Cheddar for a real contrast in taste with the complexities of a sweet smokiness. All of these flavors blend together in a wonderful way so that they mesh nicely, but still all maintain their own individual character.
And the outcome of the final dish? A luxuriously creamy sauce, tender noodles, and a crunchy, bubbly, browned top (and yes, I’m in the bread crumb crowd on this one–I like the texture!). I had this as a main course (given that, I considered adding some sausage and/or mushrooms–maybe next time!), but it also works wonderfully as a side dish.
- 1 lb macaroni noodles
- 6 cloves of garlic
- 1 shallot
- 8 oz Swiss gruyere
- 4 oz cheddar cheese (I used an aged, hickory smoked cheddar)
- 4 oz Parmigiano Reggiano
- 4-6 oz mascarpone
- 2.5 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
- 6 Tbsp butter
- 3/4 cup bread crumbs
- 1/4 cup flour
- 4 tsp salt
- black pepper
- crushed red pepper
- white pepper
Seeing how cheese is such a large part of what makes this dish a magical thing, you don’t want to go for the cheapest bag of pre-shredded cheese at the grocery store. Instead, opt for nice blocks of cheese and give your food processor’s cheese grating blade a chance to shine (its fun to use and I certainly don’t use it nearly enough! Attach, turn it on, drop the block in, and watch shredded cheese fall to the bottom. You almost want to find other things to drop in there just to see it happen…almost ).
So given that, shred up all of the hard cheeses individually so that they’ll be easier to work with later (melting down shreds of Gruyère compared to a block will go a lot faster) and set each one aside in a bowl.
At this point, you have shredded Gruyère, shredded Parmigiano Reggiano, and shredded cheddar. Just for the sake of having everything out and ready, get a good scoop of mascarpone out as well. I know…just look at all of that cheese. That’s about 1.25 lbs of cheese (compared to 1 lb of pasta).
Also take this opportunity to get some breadcrumbs ready. I had some leftover baguette that was a little too hard to eat but just right for bread crumbs, so blitz it in the food processor and set this aside.
First, we’ll get the bread crumb topping ready. In a medium/large saucepan, melt down about half of the butter on low-medium heat. Once all melted down, add in the bread crumbs and Parmigiano Reggiano. Toss this around until the bread crumbs are well coated and then set this mixture aside in a bowl.
While you’re waiting on the butter to melt down, dice up the garlic and shallots (or, since your food processor is already dirty, make quick work of it and chop them finely in there). Once the bread crumbs are done and out of the way, throw in a knob of butter and sauté these two for about 3 minutes or so to soften them and mellow out those sharp flavors. Take them off of the heat and set aside as well.
So now that all of the supporting characters are ready, on to the star of the show: the cheese sauce. In the saucepan, melt down the rest of the butter (still over low-medium heat). Once melted down, add in the flour and keep whisking it. This will help to thicken the sauce some and give it a nice body.
After about five minutes of this, add in the milk and cream, and continue to whisk for yet another five minutes.
Finally, take the plunge and say good bye to whatever your cholesterol levels were today. Add in the Gruyère, mascarpone, salt, and the various kinds of pepper (all to taste–I like to add in just a little bit of heat and spice, but don’t go overboard! The star of the show here is cheese, and too much heat would overwhelm the subtle flavors at play here. Some would include nutmeg, but I think that has no place in here).
Keep whisking, but not too fast–you just want to help it melt and integrate but not let it stick to the bottom of the saucepan where it will burn. Within just a few minutes (its fairly quick), all of the cheese should have melted and the sauce will have a nice, smooth, creamy appearance. Mix in the sauteed garlic and shallots from earlier and take the sauce off of the heat and set it aside.
Some time during all of the sauce prep earlier, you should preheat the oven to 350?F and get some water boiling so that you’re ready to cook the pasta. This is fairly quick and easy work–boil the noodles for about 8 minutes or so (shoot for an al dente kind of texture) and then drain.
Toss the cooked pasta in the cheese sauce.
The end is near. Get an oven-safe baking dish (I used two–I didn’t want to risk any spillover and it looked like a close call. My oven already needs a good cleaning…why spill cheese in there?) and pour in the macaroni and cheese sauce.
Spread the bread crumb mixture from earlier over the top of the pasta and gently press it into the noodles so its not just freely floating. Then, sprinkle the grated cheddar over that so that it can melt and lock all of that yumminess under a protective layer of more yumminess. Get this in the oven and set a timer for about 40 minutes.
The purpose of the bread and cheddar layer is to add a seductive top to the dish, so if its not slightly browned during the last five minutes or so of cooking time, bump the temperature of the oven up (e.g. to 375?F) and let it go for five minutes or so to help pretty it up a bit.
Then get it out of the oven, grab a bowl, break through the top, and dig in while its hot. Enjoy!