Thursday, March 2, 2017

Homemade Mac-n-Cheese (Baked or Smoked)

Sadly, my wife flat out refuses to eat Macaroni and Cheese casserole!  She will eat Kraft Mac-n-cheese out of the blue box, which amazes me.  Honestly, who refuses a pound of pasta, smothered with a pound and a half of cheese??

This recipe is in my personal recipe folder called, "Badass Mac-n-Cheese."  It's a super-decadent, uber-cheesy version of a straight up macaroni casserole.  Feel free to embellish by adding bacon, pulled pork, chopped jalapenos, chopped onion, or any other of your faves.  Just promise me that you won't add pineapples... those people are crazy!

You Will Need:
  • 4 Tbs. (1/2 stick) butter; plus 2 additional Tbs. butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1 Tbs. tomato paste (yes, tomato paste)
  • 8oz package of Cream Cheese
  • 2 cups (8oz) shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • 2 cups (8oz) shredded smoked gouda cheese
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 5 slices of sourdough bread, cut into tiny cubes
  • Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 1 lb. elbow macaroni, cooked until al dente and drained 
Preheat either your oven to 375, or (preferably) your Smoker to 250 degrees

So, you need a pound of pasta.  Do you need macaroni?  No, but it's traditional.  You DO need a bite-sized form of pasta with some curls or a hollow core to grab onto the sauce.  I use a mix of small and large macaroni noodles.  Weigh out 16oz on your kitchen scale and boil them for 7-8 minutes or until al-dente.  Drain them, and re-submerge them in COLD water to stop the cooking process.  Leave them alone while you "Sauce Up!"
Let's get cheesy!  8oz of cheese will grate out to 2 cups.  I know, crazy!  I prefer to use a fresh 8oz block of cheese, over the pre-shredded variety.  When they put the pre-shredded stuff in the bag, they add cornstarch to keep it from clumping.  I don't want the cornstarch in my casserole, so I just grate all of the cheese with an old-school grater.
In a large pot, melt 4Tbsp of butter, over MEDIUM heat, then add the flour.  Use a paddle and stir, stir, stir until two thing happen.  1. It will no longer smell "buttery," but more "nutty."  2. It will eventually (7 minutes or so) smooth out and be less clumpy.  This is a Roux you're making, and it's magic!!  A Roux's sole purpose in life is to thicken liquids.  The longer you stir it over heat, the darker and more flavorful it becomes, BUT, the less "thickening" power it retains.  Since we're not making Gumbo today, we want a light blond Roux with maximum thickening power so as soon as the Roux smoothes out, add the milk.

Jack the heat up to Med-High and keep stirring!  You might want to switch to a whisk, to make sure the Roux doesn't clump.  Stir and watch for about 5 minutes.  When the mixture starts to "burble" and burp like primordial ooze or a forgotten tar pit, it's ready!  Congratulations, the French call this a "Bechamel" sauce and it serves as a base for hundreds of other sauces.  It's a culinary requirement for any cooking school, and you just mastered it!
No time for patting yourself on the back, however, because this sauce is fairly fragile.  Keep stirring and add the tomato paste, cayenne pepper, and the block of cream cheese.  Why cream cheese?  Well, besides being super creamy and delicious, it will help things come back together tomorrow, when you are reheating this lovely creation in your microwave.  Why the paste and pepper?  For "tang" and that hint of "something" special...
Stir until all of this has melted and runs smoothly off of your paddle.  Now, add most of the cheese that you grated earlier.  Add it a little bit at a time and stir after each "dump" to let it melt and incorporate.  Continue to stir and slowly build the cheese sauce, leaving about 1/2cup of the cheese for later.
Drain the pasta, and pour it into a clean bowl.  Pour over your finished cheese sauce and gently stir it together with your paddle.  Scrape the cheese goodness out of the pot and make sure it all makes it into the pasta bowl!  
Now, pour the whole mixture into a pre-greased 13x9" casserole pan and smooth it out.  Looking GOOD, right?  I know, I know, you could eat it right now... True, but it only gets better from here so, wait it out!  Sprinkle the last remaining 1/2 cup of grated cheese over the top, and then turn your attention to those "forgotten" bread cubes...
Dump your tiny cubes of bread into a bowl and pour over your 2Tbsp of melted butter.  Mix to evenly coat, then sprinkle them over the top of the grated cheese that was sprinkled over the top of the macaroni goodness!  Finally, sprinkle a generous helping of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano as a final topping.
Eureka!  You've assembled an amazing staple of American comfort food!  You could put it into a 375 degree oven until the bread cubes start to caramelize and turn golden brown (50 minutes to an hour).  OR...
You could add even more flavor and slide it into your smoker at 250 degrees for 60-70 minutes!  If you choose to smoke it, there are a couple of things to be aware of.  Make certain you've pre-heated your smoker and that you're burning clean embers (no bark, fresh charcoal, or anything that produces thick white smoke)!  You'll also want to check it every ten minutes or so and cover it when the bread takes on the color you want.  If you leave the bread in the smoker, uncovered, it could blacken with the color of the smoke and that's not good... Keep an eye on the temperature too, adjust the air-flow as necessary to keep the heat around 250.

When it comes out, let it stand (covered) for ten minutes to let things "settle" a bit.  If you did this correctly, your cheese sauce will firm up and you'll be able to cut out squares of hot and gooey mac-n-cheese blocks, and the rest of the casserole won't run all over the pan or your plate!

Enjoy!  As always, feel free to comment...


Questions or comments? Did you love it or hate it?