Mac is Back

Let me preface this by saying that there is not a damned thing healthy about this recipe. It is fatty, cheesy, and calorie-laden and that is exactly what makes it wonderful. If you are on a diet, look away. Actually, don’t. Live a little. Just because you shouldn’t eat it every day doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ‘treat yoself’ every once in awhile. We deserve it, and there’s nothing wrong with moderation. Except like.. you know… crack or whatever. Don’t do crack at all.

As most of you know, mac n’ cheese is one of those dishes I am on an endless quest to perfect. It’s my white whale. It’s far too easy for it to come out bland, or gritty, or (god forbid) dry. For lack of a better term, its kind of a fickle little bitch. I know, I know, you can just throw some Velveeta in there and call it a day, but that just ain’t me. Being the bull-headed queen that I am, I can’t do anything the easy way. This time at least, thank GOD I could have my gluten-FULL noodles. Oh sweet gluten, how I love thee.

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that bacon makes everything better. Butter may be the stuff of my soul, but bacon is the key to my heart. Obviously, my first step in my quest to improve my mac game was to include this glorious workhorse ingredient. Jalapeño followed immediately to mind to bring a little freshness and spice, balancing that beautiful fattiness and smokiness.

What I really felt was going to up the flavor game in this run was the addition of fresh aromatics (onions and garlic, in this case). As anyone who cooks often will tell you, onions are the foundation of damn near everything. From soups to pasta sauces to bitchin’ braises, they provide the framework on which complex flavors are built. I decided on green onions for their milder flavor and so that I could use the delicious, fresh, crunchy dark green ends as a garnish. I’m a sucker for anything with some crisp green onion sliced on top.

The other key to living your best mac n’ cheese life is using the highest quality cheese you can find. The general formula is one good melting cheese (fontina, brie, mozzarella, gruyere, etc) and one stronger-flavored cheese (cheddar, gorgonzola.. you catch my drift). Really, the possibilities are endless. For my previous attempts, I had used white cheddar for purely aesthetic purposes. This time, I decided to go with yellow sharp cheddar because I feel that it has a much more commanding flavor. Bland is certainly not better. For the topping, I wanted a nice salty hard cheese and went with an aged asiago I found on sale (others in the south will understand me… there is nothing that gets me more hyped up than a good ol’ Kroger “Woohoo!” item). Parmesan, manchego, or pecorino are also excellent options. Once you have the formula down, get creative!

Note: Although it may be tempting, don’t buy pre-shredded cheese. It is covered in corn starch and all other kinds of nonsense to keep it from sticking together and it will make an inferior sauce. Trust me, I am the queen of lazy and I would recommend it if I could. 

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 lb Fontina grated
  • 1/2 lb aged sharp cheddar, grated
  • 1/2 cup Asiago, finely grated
  • 1 tsp ground mustard powder
  • 1 tsp white pepper
  • Kosher salt (to taste)
  • 2 bunches green onions, sliced thinly. Separate the white and light green parts from the dark green ends.
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 jalapeños, diced
  • 5 strips of thick-cut bacon
  • Butter (see note)
  • 1/4 cup AP flour
  • 2 tbsp Frank’s red hot sauce
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 lb pasta (I like to use cavatappi, for their arguably perfect texture to sauce-holding ratio)
  • 2 cups Cheeze-it crackers, crushed

Note 1: Have the cheeses pre-grated and the milk and cream pre-measured so you aren’t scrambling when it comes time to use them. Getcha mise en place, my loves. 

Note 2: The amount of butter required here will vary. For me, it was about two tablespoons, but it could be less or more, depending on the fattiness of your bacon. 

The Breakdown:

  1. Cook the pasta according to package directions, stopping the cooking process one minute early so that the pasta won’t overcook during baking. Toss with a tablespoon of olive oil or butter and set aside.
  2. Slice the bacon strips in half lengthwise and then into 1/2 inch slices.
  3. Spread the bacon slices evenly along the bottom of a cold large saucepan and place it over medium heat. You want the pan to come to temperature slowly so that all that beautiful fat can render out without burning the meat.
  4. Once all the fat has rendered out and the bacon is browned and crispy, remove it with a slotted spoon and set aside in a bowl lined with paper towels.
  5. Okay, now this is the step where everyone is going to be like “Oh, you big fat fatty.” Well, suck it up and live a little. Like I said, this isn’t an every-day meal, just a “Man I really love myself and ungodly amounts of cheese.” meal. What I want you to do here is assess the amount of leftover fat in your pan and supplement with butter until you have 1/4 cup of fat.
  6. Keeping the pan over medium heat, add in the chopped white and light green portions of your green onions as well as your diced jalapeños. Sauté 2-3 minutes or until softened.
  7. Add the garlic, mustard powder, and white pepper and sauté one minute, or until fragrant.
  8. Evenly sprinkle 1/4 cup of flour over this mixture and stir for 1-2 minutes until the roux browns lightly and develops a nutty smell.
  9. Stirring constantly, slowly drizzle in the milk and heavy cream and bring the mixture to a gentle boil. Boil for a minute or two until you see the mixture slightly thicken. Turn off the heat.
  10. Once the milk mixture has cooled enough that it is lightly steaming, but not boiling, stir in the fontina and cheddar cheeses a handful at a time until they are completely melted. The cooler the sauce is when you melt the cheese in, the smoother it will be. You want it just hot enough to melt it. If need be, turn the burner back on low. Having the liquid too hot when the cheese is melting causes the proteins to coagulate and makes for a gritty sauce.
  11. Stir in the hot sauce, taste, and adjust for seasoning. If it isn’t making you close your eyes and “mmmm” in cheesy ecstasy, try a little salt. You may also want to adjust the spice level, according to your preferences.
  12. Gently fold in your pasta and stir until each piece is coated in that liquid gold. Transfer that beautiful mac into a 9×12 baking dish.
  13. In a large bowl, combine the asiago, the crushed Cheeze-its, the bacon, and two tablespoons of melted butter. Slather that goodness all over the top of your mac.
  14. Bake at 375 °F for 15-20 minutes, or until browned, bubbly, and beautiful.
  15. Serve immediately, garnished with your sliced green onion tops.

Can I say first that smashing up some Cheeze-its and tossing them on that sucker was the best idea I ever did have. You think they’re addictive now, try tossing them in butter and asiago cheese and letting it get all browned and crunchy. I think I died and went to heaven.

This isn’t my last go at the perfect mac n’ cheese, but it’s damn close. If you want an idea of how it went over, it took three people two days to take the whole lot of it down. It didn’t last long in my fridge, that’s for sure. Next time, I might add some more jalapeño, because (for my taste) it could have been a little hotter. I’m thinking maybe some fresh, raw jalapeño mixed into the crumble topping would do it.

It certainly was not short on flavor, however. The fresh aromatics did wonders for giving the sauce a beautiful depth, the kind you can’t quite put your finger on but you’d miss if it weren’t there. Onions and garlic have never let me down.

If you wanted a vegetarian version, you could simply use all butter instead of the bacon fat. I’d venture to guess it would even be good with some par-cooked broccoli florets stirred in before baking. This is definitely the kind of meal that you could use to trick your kids or, lets be honest, your malnourished significant others into eating vegetables.

If you want a vegan version…. I cannot help you. If I ever go vegan, call the cops. I’ve either lost my ever-loving mind or I’m being coerced.

The next post will be coming much sooner, I have missed this and missed you all. As always, if you get the time to try this recipe please let me know your thoughts!

xoxo,

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