Mac and Cheese is a totally under-appreciated and overlooked art form. So for the first time, The Grilling Man is straying from grill-focused recipes and bringing you a gem: TGM Mac and Cheese, which will bring you happiness, fulfillment, and peace (or at least the feeling of contentment only possible after consuming loads of fat).
First off, some notes on Mac and Cheese:
- Mac and Cheese is a BAKED product first and foremost. It is not to be made by mixing a bunch of crappy goop together that originated in powdered form.
- Mac and Cheese is a BLANK CANVAS the same way an omelet is. You have the base but what you add to it is what truly makes it.
- Mac and Cheese, with the right ingredients and balance, is no more unhealthy than many dishes … they key, as always, is balance and quantity.
- Mac and Cheese might well be the ultimate food pairing wine for many reasons (which we’ll cover later).
Let’s talk “Mac” first. Macaroni is part of the name mainly because it’s easy to say and fits well for marketing. But also because it’s the right shape. We don’t say “spaghetti and cheese” or “linguini and cheese” for a reason: the tubular shape of the macaroni pasta makes for more sauce surface space for the dish (which, in the end, means more flavor). But any pasta shape can be used as long as it has significant surface area, and actually I don’t like macaroni because the tube tends to be too small. Give me ziti or rotini anytime.
Let’s talk “Cheese” next. Quality cheese is not only important here, but essential. A good Mac and Cheese dish is REDUCTIVE, meaning you’re adding ingredients and cooking/boiling off their volume. Thus, start with crap cheese and you have a crap dish. Start with good cheese and end with a good dish. Reductive dishes amplify positives and negatives, so don’t skimp.
Lastly, let’s talk about the word in the middle: “and”. I don’t view this word as a simple conjunction. I view it as an ingredient. The magical power of ‘and’ opens up the world. It allows ANYTHING to the party. More on that in a bit.
Core TGM Mac and Cheese recipe. Note: this is a big batch because I believe in having leftovers. Adjust as you see fit.
- 2/3 of a loaf white bread
- 1 pound butter (you won’t use it all, don’t worry. But who the hell buys 2/3 of a pound of butter?)
- 5 or 6 pounds good dried Italian pasta. Don’t buy the crap from New Jersey. It tastes like New Jersey.
- Some kosher salt, or some truffle salt, or both.
- 1.5 cups flour
- 3 teaspoons dry mustard (Penzey’s brand preferred)
- 3 teaspoons cayenne pepper plus more for flavor
- 1/2 gallon organic whole milk
- 1 pound Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
- 1 pound White Cheddar, shredded
- 1/2 pound Sharp Cheddar, shredded
- Six 9×13 aluminum baking pans
- In food processor, pulse bread and 6 tablespoons cold butter until granulated. Put in a ziplock bag and toss in the freezer right away (you don’t want the butter to get warm or melty)
- Cook the pasta. Do it in several batches if needed. The key is this: undercook it just a TOUCH, drain, then put in a big pot in the sink. Run cold water over it for five minutes. You’re just trying to stop the cooking process instantly. Once chilled, drain again and put in the aluminum pans, which then go in the fridge. You’ll end up with six pans of cooked pasta ready to roll.
Prep filling ingredients
- Get creative here. Bacon, crab, lobster, chorizo, mushrooms, steak, shrimp, beans, peppers, smoked fish, pulled pork, chicken, you name it. Keep it to two or three ingredients per pan, but have fun digging in your fridge. Sautee, boil, roast, or do whatever you need to do to these items, but in the end have them sitting out ready to grab.
- Do the same prep for any herbs and spices you want to use. Chopped basil, fresh rosemary, hot sauce, you name it. Have it handy.
- Turn the oven to 350 degrees.
- Start by making a basic roux. Melt 12-15 tablespoons butter in a stock pot on medium to high heat. When melted, a touch brown, and bubbly add some flour and whisk it up. Soon add more flour and whisk it. Add the cayenne and dry mustard (and some powdered garlic if you wish), and the rest of the flour. Keep it stirring, and pull the pot off the heat now and again if needed … control the heat by moving the pot instead of adjusting the temperature.
- When blended, SLOWLY pour in some of the milk, continuing to whisk. Keep going as it absorbs together. You can pour and blend the whole half gallon into the roux over 2-3 minutes, whisking continuously. When done, keep whisking slowly until it boils. Bring the heat down to a simmer for ten minutes (whisking now and again … keep it moving!).
- Turn off the heat. Grab all the shredded cheeses and add them in handfuls, whisking with each addition. Once all the cheese is added, turn heat to low (and again, keep whisking every now and then). Add some salt to taste.
- Special note on cayenne pepper: the amazing James Beard in “Beard on Pasta” said it best: don’t be afraid of the spice. In a cheesy dish it has the effect of amplifying the flavor of the cheese rather than coming across as heat. So do the right thing and don’t avoid this ingredient.
- Grab the pans of pasta from the fridge. The pasta should be tacky to the touch by now. Add your filling ingredients (fewer varieties in a pan are better, but feel free to load it up on quantity) and toss around. Add a big ladle of cheese sauce (or even two ladles) to each pan and toss it around to mix the sauce with the pasta and filler.
- Do this for each pan, using up the sauce. (If you happen to make way too much sauce, don’t worry … add some beer and make beer cheese soup!)
- Remove the bread crumb mixture from the freezer and spread evenly over all pans. Feel free to shake some cayenne pepper or fresh ground black pepper on top.
- Bake each dish for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. The top should get nicely toasted, and the pasta will absorb up much of the sauce (the last thing you want are goopy/wet cuts of baked pasta).
- After removing from oven, allow to sit for 15 minutes then eat and enjoy or cover with foil and freeze for up to three months. This dish reheats beautifully in the microwave, so it’s ideal for office or school lunches.
- Mac and Cheese begs for wines from the Southern Rhone valley and Piedmonte, Italy. Both regions make robust but juicy wines that complement the abundance of richness of these dishes.
- Never throw away mac and cheese leftovers. There is nothing better for a naughty breakfast than this.
- Don’t let the pans sit in the freezer for more than three months or so. The cream and cheese will separate and the dish will fall apart.