Mac & Cheese - Comfort Food Extraordinaire
The delicious raw milk cheeses from Veldhuizen Cheese Farm in Dublin, Texas, available at 4.0 Cellars, continue to tempt me to prepare my favorite comfort food, Macaroni and Cheese. These Veldhuizen cheeses are part of the Texas Cheese and Wine Experience offered at 4.0 Cellars. These pairings include 5 different cheeses 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. Advanced reservations are required and are typically limited to 12 people for each session, regularly scheduled at 11:30 am, 1:00 pm, and 2:30 pm daily, plus private sessions typically scheduled at 4:00 pm or after.
On Saturdays, when I normally guide these Texas Cheese and Wine Experiences, often mentioned is Mac and Cheese that incorporates Veldhuizen cheeses. Customers frequently suggest that Mac & Cheese be served at these pairings, however we have determined that such preparation for an unknown number of guests would be impractical. Since many guests have asked for my Mac and Cheese recipe, I decided to publish the variations in a Nov-2017 Carl’s Corner post. With the current change to cooler fall weather, for this Carl’s Corner, I share an update for my favorite comfort food.
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, proprietor at the former Swedes Inn in Swedesboro, NJ (now Tavro 13), Tom Ryan, private caterer & drinking buddy in NJ, Ross Ford, former 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 Veldhuizen Redneck Cheddar, Gouda, 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, Fontina, 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 some portion of the cheeses noted above.
2 Tbsp Mustard (your favorite yellow, like Whataburger or French’s, or Dijon)
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 warm and thicken, 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 mixing 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, poultry, 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)
Use a mix of your favorite cooked vegetables, chopped, to make a primavera version
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.
Make sure to open a delicious wine to accompany your Mac and Cheese. Rich whites go best with the cheese-only or seafood versions, while flavorful reds with softer tannins work best with meat and poultry versions.