When I first began this tryst with blogging, I promised my friends I would include some of my favorite recipes and go-to dishes for parties and gatherings, so a good recipe is long overdue. I figure, I stalled long enough on the Galactica shtick, the kitchen is all finished, so it’s time to start cooking again. Bam.
First off, the disclaimer. I love fresh ingredients, I love fresh foods, hitting the farmer’s market, and cooking with seasonal ingredients. However, we’re going to hold off on the pumpkin ravioli and squash soup, because what good Southern Boy could get away without paying homage to the ultimate of Southern-perfected comfort foods: The Mac & Cheese. After all, the weekend is over, who doesn’t need a little comfort for the work week? I love comfort food. An ex-boyfriend of mine once brought me brownies, and he might as well have been handing me a diamond engagement ring at the foot of the Eiffel tower. Remember, through his stomach, through his stomach (but diamonds are nice, too.) I love Mac & Cheese. I always have. My mom makes an amazing Macaroni and Cheese that’s so good, when she would serve it, the other women in the Garden Club would threaten to pour bleach on her roses behind her back. I mean, what’s Southern cooking without a little cattiness? You’re probably surprised that in this bachelor blog I’m not telling you how to adapt the Blue Box Blues. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and place for the Blue Box Blues and the Velveeta, and I’ve certainly had many a dinner of Kraft Easy Mac, paired with a PBR on a dorm room futon, in my hay day, but let’s think outside the Blue Box this time.
Speaking of the Blue Box Blues, I was always struck by the wording on boxed Mac & Cheese. They always say “Macaroni and Cheese Dinner.” I don’t know if it’s the fat little boy inside of me clawing and dying to get out, or the sheer fact that I could eat the box by myself, but I always considered Mac & Cheese to be a side dish, paired with anything from a hot dog to a New York Strip. That being said, this Mac & cheese recipe can really be dinner. It’s good enough, rich enough, and beyond filling enough to be your main dish. Paired with a nice salad of micro greens, a bottle of white, and some crusty French bread, you’re in business. If it even makes you feel better and makes it easier to sleep at night, you can tell your guests it’s a “pasta bake.” I love this dish, I’ve served it at numerous cook-outs, gatherings, and friends always ask for seconds.
So without further adieu, I give you “Black Tie Macaroni and Cheese.”
Black Tie Macaroni and Cheese
Total Time from prep to finish: 40 Minutes Max (and we’re talking from shredding your own cheese to pulling this bad boy out of the oven.)
Ingredients: (This recipe is “family sized” and will definitely yield leftovers, so feel free to scale it back if it’s just for 2 people/a small family)
2 (8-oz) packages of Cavatappi pasta (Please see the photo above for example. Feel free to sub for elbows or your favorite shape. I like the Cavatappi because they have the curve of elbow but are longer, and a fun, curly shape with ridges that hold the cheese sauce well…it’s food, have fun.)
2 Tablespoons of Butter
2 Tablespoons of Flour
1 ½ cups of milk (once again your preference: whole milk, clearly richer, but I use skim because it’s what I keep in the fridge for my cereal)
½ cup Half-and-Half
1 cup/8oz block of Extra Sharp White Cheddar Cheese (shredded—I highly recommend CABOT of Vermont. Very good, not too pricey, available in most grocery stores)
1 cup/8oz wedge of Gruyere Cheese (shredded)—You can substitute Swiss for Gruyere if you are saving a few bucks or can’t find Gruyere.
½ Cup Grated Parmesan Cheese (the stuff in the green can is fine).
1 bag of shredded Colby Jack or Cheese Blend.
1 Box of Panko (Japanese Bread Crumbs)—this can be substituted with a crusty French baguette.
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
Optional: Pinch or two of Garlic Powder
Optional: ½ a jar of store bought Alfredo Sauce (you'll see where this comes in)
1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
2. Boil both packages of pasta according to the instructions on the package. Be sure to salt the water once it comes to a boil to flavor the pasta.
3. While pasta is boiling, start the sauce. Ok, here is where I change things up. This recipe calls for flour and butter to make a Rue. I’m all about a Rue. Especially if it’s Rue McClanahan from the Golden Girls, but sometimes I skip this step. The point of the rue is to serve as a thickener for your cheese sauce, and while it’s necessary, this is where the optional ½ a jar of store bought Alfredo sauce comes in. So, at this point either a. make your rue by heating the butter and flower and quickly/constantly whisking the two over medium heat until it forms a kind of wet, doughy thickener, or skip that and dump the half a jar of store bought Alfredo sauce into your sauce pan over medium heat. The sauce just gives you a nice, thick, creamy base to begin with. (Plus, who wouldn’t want some extra, cheesy, garlicky goodness?) If you burn your rue, it's going to be totally nasty funk city, so you'll have to start over.
4. Gradually whisk in milk and half-and-half over the heat, allowing to cook while whisking constantly. Whisk and stir until thickened. Stir in small handfuls of the shredded cheddar cheese, shredded Gruyere cheese, and Parmesan cheese, whisking constantly over medium heat. (It’s crucially important that you shred your cheese and add it gradually. If you drop in chunks of cheese, they don’t melt quickly enough in the sauce and form a big, gooey cheese ball that separates from your cream sauce and basically floats in the middle/sticks to your whisk. No good. Well, it tastes good, but good luck spreading a massive cheese ball throughout the pasta. Whisk the ingredients until smooth and bubbly.
5. Add your salt, pepper, and optional garlic to finish off the cheese sauce.
6. Combine the drained pasta and cheese sauce in the original, now empty, pasta pot. Stir so all the pasta is covered in the cheesy goodness. Pour the pasta and cheese into your favorite Pyrex or 11 x 7ish baking dish. Once you spread the pasta and cheese out evenly, cover with the bag of shredded cheese blend (or Colby jack). Then top with generous handfuls of Panko bread crumbs. You could also really sex up this recipe and skip the Panko, and top the Mac n Cheese with slices of crusty French baguette. The bread will act as your crust and will create perfect serving size portions for guests. If you’re really feeling the love, throw some slices of fresh tomato on top. If you have any extra Parmesan left in the green can, throw a sprinkle on top as well.
7. Bake in the oven, uncovered at 350 for 15-20 minutes, or until it’s bubbly and the bread crumbs are golden brown.
8. Serve to guests either as a main dish, or as a side dish, and receive rave reviews.
9. Hire personal trainer the next day or go to Bikram yoga to work it off.
I hope you’ll enjoy this recipe as much as I and my friends have. Like I said, it’s not health food, but then again, I’m not comforted by Granola. Granola is my 9-5 life. Consider this a guilty indulgence. The best part? It reheats like a dream. So, next time. If you have a few extra minutes, skip the Blue Box Blues and go for the Black Tie. You and your guests will be glad you did.
Photo Credit: Effillee Images