Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Life Changing Mac 'N Cheese

I used to think my friend Dustin was crazy.  One day while extolling the virtues of macaroni and cheese, Dustin proclaimed, "I'm not a huge fan of mac 'n cheese."  After I picked my jaw up off the floor, he elaborated, "I just don't get what the big deal is.  It's pasta and cheese.  Meh..."*  Well folks, my mission was clear.  "It's OK, Dustin.  There's something broken inside of you, but I will fix it!"

For the next few weeks, I scoured the Internet for the perfect M&C recipe.  Initially, I thought I would present Delilah's 7 Cheese Mac and Cheese.  This recipe was featured on Bobby Flay's Throwdown and Oprah for Pete's sake!!  But after reading and re-reading the ingredients and the reviews I realized this was not the direction I wanted to go.  The recipe calls for one dozen eggs so the result resembles a M&C quiche.  For this classic dish, I knew I wanted to make something that was baked, topped with bread crumbs and creamy.  Spoonable, not sliceable.  Also, considering my audience (and my own pork obsession) I realized that if I could somehow incorporate bacon into the dish I could really tip the scales.

Eventually, I decided to create my own recipe.  I did have some idea of the cheese base I wanted to use, but I will tell you that the rest of this "recipe" came to fruition after trolling the cheese section of my local grocery store.  What I'm saying is, if you can't find this exact combination of cheeses, don't sweat it.  Add a little more of one of the others or add another kind all together.  However, please note that if you decide to get all wild and add a particularly "stinky" cheese the flavor of your M&C will change dramatically.  I made a Bleu cheese M&C one time.  It was delicious, but pungent as hell and SUPER rich.  Not for the faint of heart!

This is a calorie juggernaut (you've been WARNED!!) so to combat that a little, I sometimes use a few low fat (or part skim) cheeses.  This is up to your discretion.  You can certainly go full fat if you just don't care, but you don't want to go all the way low fat.  Too many low fat items will yield a rubbery product.

Also, these measurements are completely eyeballed.  If you find your cheese sauce getting too thick, add a little more liquid.  Conversely, if your cheese sauce is still watery, then add a little more cheese. 

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present...

5 slices bacon
1 bag elbow macaroni (I use large macaroni with ridges)
1-2 T butter
2-3 T flour
chicken stock (approx 2 cups), room temp or slightly heated
1 cup 2% (or whole) milk
Cayenne, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce (a couple dashes of each, to taste and desired spice level)
1/2 small box reduced fat Velveeta, broken up into moderate chunks**
1 bar reduced fat cream cheese, broken up into moderate chunks
1 cup each of the following cheeses (grated): white cheddar, extra sharp cheddar, mozzarella, Monterrey jack, Parmesan
1/4-1/2 c bread crumbs
1-2 T butter, melted
1/4-1/2 c grated Parmesan

Fry the bacon.  Drain on paper towels and set aside to cool.  Reserve bacon grease.

Cook the macaroni to "al dente" in a large pot of heavily salted water.  Drain and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350.  Chop or crumble cooled bacon into bite-sized pieces.  Set aside.

Transfer a few tablespoons of the bacon grease to the large pot used for cooking macaroni and 1 tablespoon of butter.  Heat over moderately high heat until butter is melted.  Lower heat to medium, add flour, and whisk constantly for 1-2 minutes until fat/flour mixture is golden brown and a creamy paste texture.***  Slowly add chicken stock to the flour mixture, whisking constantly to remove lumps.  Add milk, continuing to stir until heated through.  Do not boil.  Add spices and stir to incorporate.  Start adding the cheeses a handful at a time stirring constantly.  Let each handful melt almost completely before adding another (a few lumps are fine).  Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed (refrain from salting as the bacon and pasta will add some saltiness to the dish).  Transfer the macaroni and the crumbled bacon into the pot with the cheese sauce and stir to incorporate.  Transfer pasta/bacon/cheese mixture to a buttered (or Pam-ed) 9x13 casserole dish.

Combine the breadcrumbs and melted butter in a small bowl and mix to incorporate.  Sprinkle over macaroni.  Sprinkle additional Parmesan on top of breadcrumbs.  Bake for 30 minutes or until macaroni is hot and bubbly.

Drool and serve!!!

Reviews for Life Changing Mac 'N Cheese:
"I finally get it. This is what all the fuss is about. Calling those other mac 'n cheeses 'mac 'n cheese' is an insult to this mac 'n cheese!" - Dustin M.

"If this mac 'n cheese was drugs, I'd be an addict." - Andrew V.O.
(Additional comments - truth be told, my favorite compliments - by A.V.O. edited for family friendliness.) :o)

"This isn't mac 'n cheese.  It's mac 'n CHEESUS!" - Michael McD.

*I later learned that the only M&C Dustin had ever tasted was "blue box" and/or maybe a Luby's equivalent, so I kind of understand his (former) ambivalence towards M&C.  That said, I have and still do eat my fair share of "blue box" and Luby's equivalents and I love them.  Frankly, if it so much as resembles M&C, I'm in!

**This is optional.  I like to include it b/c it adds a certain level of creaminess, but I know people hate it, so eliminate it if you're offended.

***The melted fat/flour combo is a traditional food thickener called a roux [roo].  Rouxs are fantastic for thickening soup and gravy.  You want to make sure that you let the flour cook for a little while before incorporating your liquids to eliminate that raw flour taste.

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