Mac & Cheese - Comfort Food Extraordinaire
Texas Wine Collective – Carl’s Corner
Mac & Cheese - Comfort Food Extraordinaire (Mar-2021)
Texas Cheese and Wine Experience is a special pairing offered at Texas Wine Collective, and includes 5 different cheeses with 5 wines (usually 2 white and 3 red) from the TWC winery partners: Brennan Vineyards, Lost Oak Winery and McPherson Cellars. The pairings are guided by a knowledgeable TWC staff member, and normally last about 45-50 minutes. Advanced reservations are required for the pairings that are regularly scheduled at 11:30 am, 1:00 pm, 2:30 pm, and 4:00 pm, daily.
Having the opportunity to host these pairings on Saturdays allows me to enjoy a wide range of delicious cheeses from a number of wonderful Texas creameries. This always gets me excited to discuss my favorite comfort food, Macaroni and Cheese. When guests also get excited about Mac and Cheese, we often talk about my special recipe. Yes, the recipe is special, but it is not a secret, so I am sharing it, including a range of optional upgrades and additions, with all of you in this edition of Carl’s Corner.
This Mac & Cheese recipe and variations on the theme have been borrowed and adapted from a number of sources, such as Chef 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. I have also borrowed ideas liberally from the famed New Orleans Chef Emeril Lagasse who teaches, “First you make a roux.” Through trial & error, the following Mac and Cheese recipe has become my favorite. I offer it here for your enjoyment.
1 lb elbow pasta, uncooked (other shapes are OK, but make sure the pasta has “holes” in it to better hold the cheese sauce)
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
4 Tbsp all-purpose flour
3 cups milk (regular 4% whole milk works best)
1 tsp salt
½ tsp nutmeg, freshly grated
8 oz cheese #1 - cream cheese, softened (whipped version melts quicker)
or the creamy Chevre from CKC Farms in Blanco, TX
2 cups cheese #2, shredded (like Redneck Cheddar from Veldhuizen Cheese Farm
in Dublin, TX; Granbury Gold from Eagle Mountain Farmhouse Cheese in
Lipan, TX; or Indigo Cheddar from River Whey Creamery in Scherz, TX)
or your choice of sharp white or yellow cheddar, or other specialty cheese
1 cup cheese #3, shredded (like Greens Creek Gruyere from Veldhuizen Cheese
Farm in Dublin, TX; La Espanola Muenster-style goat cheese from
Goatilicious in New Braunfels, TX) or another flavorful cheese like Asiago,
Muenster, Fontina, or Mexican whole milk Queso
Remember: 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 or PepperJack for some portion of the cheeses noted above.
Note: Buying bulk or block cheeses and shredding it yourself works better since many commercial shredded and bagged cheeses have additives to help prevent or slow down melting.
2 x 12 oz Beer, your favorite, Shiner or St. Arnold’s dark bock work best for me
2 Tbsp Mustard (your favorite yellow, like Whataburger or French’s, or Dijon)
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
Kosher salt, to taste
1 tsp Cajun spice like Tony Chachere’s or Zatarain’s, or Old Bay Seasoning
(or white pepper, ground)
½ cup butter, unsalted, melted
2 cups Panko bread crumbs
1/3 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, finely grated (or another harder, longer-aged Texas
cheese like Veldhuizen Sharp Shooter or Old Redneck Cheddar)
Preheat oven to 350⁰F.
Cook pasta according to package instructions. Drain & cool on a sheet pan. Keep a two cups 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 stirring constantly for 4-5 minutes (as long as it takes to drink one cold beer – reward for the chef. Add milk to roux slowly, stirring constantly for approximately 5 minutes more to allow the béchamel sauce to warm and thicken, but not brown. Stir in salt & nutmeg.
Stir in cheese #1 and mix well. Stir in cheese #2 and mix well. Stir in cheese #3 and mix well. Cook over low heat until cheese is melted and sauce starts to thicken.
Add the second beer, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, 1 teaspoon salt & seasoning (or white pepper). Stir to mix well and 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 and not be “gloppy” at this point.
Either leave the Mac & Cheese in the large oven-proof pot to serve right off the stove. 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 pasta into the béchamel, add one of the following:
Shrimp, 2 cups, cooked & seasoned, cut into smaller pieces (3 pieces per shrimp for me)
Crabmeat, 2 cups (check carefully and remove shell pieces)
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
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
Bacon, 1 cup, cooked brown & crisp, crumbled (a little bacon goes a long way) – Everyone knows that BACON makes things BETTER
And, I’m sure you can come up with 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 #2.
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 (or two or three) 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. The bacon version goes with everything!!