Mac & Cheese - Comfort Food Extraordinaire
Mac & Cheese - Comfort Food Extraordinaire
With delicious raw milk cheeses from Veldhuizen Cheese Farm in Dublin, Texas, available at 4.0 Cellars, a favorite offering to customers is the Texas Cheese and Wine Experience. These pairings require advanced reservations and are typically limited to 12 people for each session, regularly scheduled at 11:00 am and 1:00 pm daily, plus private sessions scheduled throughout the day. These sessions include 5 different cheeses paired with 5 wines (usually 2 white and 3 red) from the 4.0 Cellars winery partners: Brennan Vineyards, Lost Oak Winery and McPherson Cellars. The pairings are guided by a knowledgeable 4.0 staff member, and normally last about 45-50 minutes.
On Saturdays, when I normally guide these Texas Cheese and Wine Experiences, often mentioned is one of my favorite foods that incorporates Veldhuizen cheeses, Macaroni and Cheese, one of the best comfort foods available. Customers frequently suggest that Mac & Cheese be served at these pairings. Even though preparing and serving Mac & Cheese every Saturday is somewhat impractical, I often agree to provide to interested customers the recipe I use for Mac & Cheese. Since that recipe is not a secret, it just seemed the right time to offer it as a Carl’s Corner segment.
This Mac & Cheese recipe and variations on the theme have been borrowed and adapted from a number of other recipes, and sources such as Chef friends, like Ralph at Ralph’s Bistro (now Ralph’s Martini House) in Healdsburg, CA (Sonoma), Mark Beltz at the former Swedes Inn in Swedesboro, NJ (now Tavro 13), Tom Ryan, private caterer & drinking buddy in NJ, Ross Ford, formerly the chef at Stroube’s Seafood & Steaks in Baton Rouge, LA, and Bryan Gillenwater of Bryan’s on 290 in Johnson City, TX. Through trial & error, the following version has become my favorite. I offer it here for your enjoyment.
1 lb elbow pasta, uncooked (other shapes are OK, but the ol’ standby elbow version works best for me)
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
3 cups milk (regular 4% works best)
1 tsp salt
½ tsp nutmeg, freshly grated
2 cups cheese #1, shredded (like Veldhuzen Gouda, Redneck Cheddar, or Dublin Karst; or your choice of sharp white or yellow cheddar, or other specialty cheese)
1 cup cheese #2, shredded or grated (Veldhuizen Greens Creek Gruyere or other cheese like Asiago, Muenster, or Mexican whole milk Queso)
8 oz cream cheese, softened (whipped version melts quicker)
Remember that your choice of cheeses will, to a large extent, determine both the flavor & color of your Mac & Cheese. If you are interested in a spicier dish, substitute Veldhuizen Jalapeno Cheddar for 1 or more cups of the cheeses noted above.
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard (or your favorite yellow, like Whataburger or French’s)
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
Kosher salt, to taste
1 tsp white pepper, ground (or use Cajun spice like Tony Chachere’s or Zatarain’s,
or Old Bay Seasoning)
½ cup butter, unsalted, melted
2 cups Panko bread crumbs
1/3 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, finely grated (I like shredded Veldhuizen Sharp Shooter or Old Redneck Cheddar at this point, chill the cheese before shredding)
Preheat oven to 350⁰F.
Cook pasta according to package instructions. Drain & cool on a sheet pan. Keep a cup or two of the cooking water in reserve.
In a large, heavy pot (preferably oven proof), melt butter with olive oil over medium heat. Stir in flour to make a roux & cook for 4 minutes, stirring constantly. Add milk to roux slowly, stirring constantly for approximately 4 minutes more to allow the béchamel sauce to cook, but not brown. Stir in salt & nutmeg.
Stir in cheese #1 & mix well. Stir in cheese #2 & mix well. Stir in cream cheese & mix well. Cook over low heat until cheese is melted & the sauce starts to thicken.
Add mustard, Worcestershire sauce, 1 teaspoon salt & white pepper (and/or other seasoning - 1 tsp or more). Stir to mix well & remove from heat.
Stir pasta into the béchamel. Mix well. If the mixture is too thick, add portions of milk, Half & Half and/or reserved pasta cooking water to adjust the texture – it should stir easily at this point.
Either leave the Mac & Cheese in the large oven-proof pot, or transfer to a large, greased baking dish, approximately 14”x10”x2.5” in size.
In a small bowl, combine ½ cup melted butter with breadcrumbs. Stir in grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (or Sharp Shooter/Old Redneck Cheddar). Top the Mac & Cheese with bread crumb mixture. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown.
Meat or seafood variations for this recipe are many & varied. At the step when mixing the pasta with the béchamel, add one of the following:
Bacon, 1 cup, cooked brown & crisp, crumbled (a little bacon goes a long way)
Sausage, 1 lb, cooked, crumbled or chopped (Jimmy Dean Sage Breakfast Sausage is my favorite; Hilshire Farms Polish Sausage, cut into smaller pieces, is very tasty; or use Chorizo or Cajun Andouille for more spice.)
Ham, 2 cups, baked & chopped into pieces (about 1/4” works best)
BBQ Brisket, Pork Butt or Chicken, 2 cups, leaner portion, chopped or pulled
Shrimp, 2 cups, cooked & seasoned, cut into smaller pieces (3 pieces per shrimp for me)
Lobster, 2 cups, cooked & seasoned, cut into smaller pieces (about ¼ to ½ inch)
And, I’m sure you can come up with many other variations on this theme.
For a particularly pungent & different Mac & Cheese, substitute 1 cup of mild blue cheese (Veldhuizen Bosque Blue, Gorgonzola, etc.) for 1 cup of cheese #1.
For a walk-around party or picnic, parcel out the Mac & Cheese mixture into baking cups in a muffin tin & then bake, creating finger-food, single-serving portions.