The Mac Daddy
This past weekend I had the distinct pleasure of cooking all the food for my dear friend Christine’s 30th birthday bash. It was a “distinct pleasure” because it was the best of both worlds for me. I love cooking for parties. I love it so much that I’d probably throw a party every weekend if it weren’t for one little eensy problem…
I hate cleaning. Man, do I hate cleaning the house! And I especially hate the stress of trying to get the kitchen cleaned up before the guests start arriving. I’m not the type of cook that cleans as she goes.
With this particular party being held several miles away, I was free to cook right up to the last minute and then gleefully leave the kitchen in shambles as I strolled out the door in my blue toile party dress. I had five dishes on the menu, some tried-and-true and some a little more risky. All, if I am to believe the feedback, were very much a hit. When planning a party menu though, I always like to have a fail safe; a dish that’s virtually guaranteed to appease the masses and fill their bellies before the alcohol soaks in beyond repair.
My grown-up version of macaroni and cheese is about as sure fire as they come. Those of you who’ve been around this site for awhile might remember that I have a problem with making mac and cheese since my mom makes such fabulous dishes of it that I’m never really happy when I make it for myself. Herein lies the irony: it’s one of my favorite dishes to serve to other people. See, they don’t know how good my mom’s is so they’re more then happy to settle for mine. Plus, my mom’s is pure mac and cheese goodness while mine’s become something more like an odd stepchild as I cram more and more ingredients into it.
But at the heart of this ooey-gooey, drool-inducing mac daddy of a dish is the cheese. I could write sonnets about the nutty savory flavors of this particular crumbly smooth textured local cheese from Hillacres Pride that I fell in love with last summer at the Headhouse Market. I’ll spare you though as I’m not much of a poet. Suffice to say that getting a high-quality and distinctive local cheese really ups the ante for this dish.
From there, it’s equally important to consider pairing the soft chewy creamy qualities of the macaroni and cheese with a crunchy salty topping. Don’t settle for breadcrumbs in a can on this one, my friends. Get yourself a few slices of good bread (I personally like a nice oatmeal or seven grain loaf), toast them up until just golden, and cut them yourself into quarter inch cubes. Then it’s on to the bacon and grated parmesan cheese. I used soy bacon on mine since the crowd was largely vegetarian. However, I’m sure real bacon would make it even better flavor-wise.
I haven’t abandoned my mom’s formula entirely though. As my undisclosed ingredient, I tuck in a few chunks of Velveeta (a cheese “product” for those of you who don’t know it), which is what makes the cheese sauce so smooth that it wraps itself around every single piece of pasta. Mmmm-Mm!
Grown-Up Mac & Cheese
Loosely adapted from the back of the box
14-16 oz. package of macaroni or spiral pasta
3 T. butter
3 T. all-purpose flour
2 ½ C. milk (fat free works fine)
5 oz. high quality cheddar, chunked
4 oz. Velveeta (or additional cheddar)
½ C. shredded mozzarella
¼ C. chopped fresh or dried herbs (such as chives, dill, oregano and marjoram)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 slices of fresh bread, toasted and cubed into ¼ inch
5 slices of bacon (soy or real), cooked slightly underdone
¼ C. freshly grated parmesan
Cook the pasta according to package directions until just al dente. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large heavy saucepan. Add the flour and stir to cook for about a minute to get out the raw flavor of the four. Slowly stir in the milk and whisk regularly until sauce begins to thicken, about three minutes.
Add the cheddar, Velveeta and mozzarella and stir until melted and fully incorporated. Add the salt, pepper and freshly chopped herbs. Stir and remove from heat. Drain pasta of its cooking water. Stir pasta into the cheese sauce and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter a casserole or baking dish and carefully fill with macaroni and cheese. Top with evenly with bacon, bread cubes and parmesan. Place in oven and bake for 30 minutes or until golden and bubbly.