In every great meal, you’ll find a great side. When given a choice of sides, it’s hard to pass up Mac & Cheese. A great batch of Mac & Cheese can take your meal to the next level, but a bad batch of Mac…well who are we kidding? It’s still better than most things. I mean have you ever NOT finished the Mac & Cheese on your plate? I’ve had some pretty lackluster Mac & Cheese, but you know what? I still scrape the fork on the plate to get every last morsel into my pie-hole.
Most accounts trace the origins of the dish back to the late 18th century when, during the signing of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, the Wright Brothers, Vince Lombardi and Willie Nelson came up with the idea to combine cheese and pasta, forever changing the political landscape of the world. It’s ALL-AMERICAN, is what I’m getting at here. It goes wonderfully with Thanksgiving Dinner, BBQ, an old shoe, etc., and can even stand alone.
Below I’ll lay out a recipe for a style of Mac & Cheese that is by no means revolutionary. Over time, I’ve tried out a few recipes, modified, adapted, and played to my own preferences to come up with a recipe that is somewhat unique, but most importantly, full of flavor. Wait, do I sound like I worked hard to come up with this recipe? I mean I was just constantly eating Mac & Cheese. If that’s the rest of my life, I should be so lucky.
I mentioned the flavor in this recipe. My biggest complaint with a sub-par Mac & Cheese is always blandness (sub-par is relative here, it’s always easily overcome by adding some salt, and proceeding to lick the plate when you’re done anyway). I know we’re talking about a side dish, but there is no reason why Mac & Cheese can’t have standalone power. Has anyone ever said “Oh no, this meal is too flavorful?” My guess is some blowhard probably has, but I trust you folks are better than that.
I like spicy food; so this has some kick to it. I like ham; so this has ham in it. I like cheese. There is no shortage of cheese. And again, there is no reinventing the wheel here. I’ll tell you what I use, but just about every ingredient is substitutable to match your preferences.
I did my shopping at Trader Joe’s for this batch, which by the way, does NOT operate on the barter system. I only mention this because the base cheese I used is a little unique, and that’s the only place I’ve seen it. So I apologize if these last sentences seem like some sort of commercial for Trader Joe’s, I am not being paid. But if anyone is reading, I will certainly sell myself out. Otherwise, I won’t bring it up again.
Also, I’m not classically trained in the kitchen, so I may use some literal terms. And if YOU know what YOU’RE talking about, just know that this way turns out all right, no matter how poorly I may have explained and/or executed it.
Here we go:
½ lb. Cheddar & Gruyere Mélange Cheese Block (cut into ¼ in. cubes)
¼ lb. New York Sharp Cheddar (Crumbled)
½ cup of grated parmesan cheese
¼ lb. Thin-Sliced Black Forest Ham (Diced)
½ lb. of Fusilli (“Corkscrew Pasta” translated in American)
1 small onion
1 large clove of garlic
Course ground pepper
1 tsp. Cayenne Pepper (more or less depending on the heat you desire)
2 cups of Milk (Whatever kind you like, I use 2% but stay away from Skim)
4-5 tbs. Butter
3 tbsp. Flour
4 pieces of white bread
2-3 cans of beer
Cook your pasta in salted water. Make sure to keep it al dente (“still kinda firm” in American), as it will be swimming in a sea of cheese in just a few minutes and soggy pasta is gross.
Meanwhile, heat up the olive oil in a large pot. Finely dice the onion, jalapeno, and garlic, then toss into the pot. Keep it on high heat and sauté. Constantly stir to avoid burning, and heat until onions are transparent (translucent? I don’t know, kinda see-thru). Also, feel free to add a little seasoning. A dash of salt and some course black pepper is all I use, but it’s not all that necessary.
Once the onions are clear, you’re pasta will likely be ready, so drain that (don’t rinse), and set aside. Make sure not to burn the piss out of your hand with boiling water as I did this time, and about 90% of the other I am near boiling water.
Once everything is nice and sautéed, we’ll start the roux (“sauce” in American). Add 3 tablespoons of butter to the sautéed mix until melted. Now stir in the flour and the cayenne pepper. Quickly stir until well mixed into a sort of paste. Now add about half of the milk, and quickly stir until the mixture thickens to a consistent cream. Then let it stand until it starts to bubble. Add in the rest of the milk and repeat the process until the mixture thickens. (If you don’t get the consistency you want, just add milk to thin out, or flour to thicken, if that’s not obvious)
During the “let it stand until it starts to bubble” period, cut your Cheddar & Gruyere Melange into about 1/4” cubes. IMPORTANT: DO NOT EAT ALL OF THE CHEESE CUBES. Then add the cubes to the roux…err sauce…and half of the parmesan. Stir until everything is completely melted. Then stir it a little more for good measure.
At this point, turn off the heat and mix in the drained pasta until every surface possible is covered adequately. God forbid you have a bite without any cheese. Nobody wants that. And I’ll do everything I can to prevent that.
Let it cool, so we don’t repeat the inevitable scorching of flesh that we (well I) became accustomed to with the whole pasta draining situation.
Preheat the oven to 350.
While things are cooling and the oven is preheating, crumble your New York Sharp Cheddar. The one I picked up came in a half pound block, but you’ll only need half of it at the most. Do your best to NOT EAT THE REMAINING CHEESE. Actually, put it away. Right now. Dice the ham and mix it together with the cheese in a bowl.
Next, pour the pasta mix into a baking dish just so that the bottom surface is covered. Then cover that layer with the ham and cheese mix. Repeat the process until it’s all in the dish, including your heart and soul.
For the bread topping (which is completely optional). Melt the remaining butter in a large bowl (I’ll use the ham and cheese bowl because I’m lazy). Add in the rest of the parmesan. Then chop up the bread and mix together in the butter/cheese with your hands. The bread should be crumbled and evenly covered with the butter mix. Evenly top it on the dish.
By now, you should be finished with your first beer. Put the dish in the oven uncovered. Grab another beer. Finish that beer and you should be ready to go. (about 20-30 minutes or until the bread turns brown). Let it cool for 5-10 minutes or you’ll have a scalded roof of your mouth, much like I do right now.
No pain, no gain. Enjoy!