Mac & Cheese Gone Wild
Till this day no one beats my friend Veronique’s Macaroni au gratin, her balance of creamy goodness and crispy decadence is to die for. It was my first taste of her mac and cheese in her Worcester, Massachuttes home in 2001 that developed my loved affair with mac and cheese. While the 3 hour drive to Worcester is a bit much, I have travelled to the Five Points located at 31 Great Jones Street in Manhattan and to Maggie Browns at 455 Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn on many occasions in search of that creamy, sinfully delicious texture that is mac and cheese. I love this dish so much that I am always trying to figure out ways to make it that much better, so through my experiments, I have discovered some great combinations.
What makes great mac and cheese in my opinion?
Sauce: The Sauce needs to be well distributed and plentiful. I like my mac and cheese creamy, but not soupy. Sauce should be cheese flavored of course, but add your own touch, perhaps a hint of sage, onion, garlic. Bring something else.
Cheese: The days of simply Cheddar are over. Have fun with it. All my mac and cheese is made with at least 3 cheeses, sometimes I add other creamy things. French Onion Dip anyone?
Noodles: Bring life to your mac & cheese. Step out of the elbows. Go rigatoni, penne, orecchiette, mini shells, and other fun shapes.
Topping: This is key. The top must be crisp. I like crispy, golden topping for my mac and cheese.
Below is a mac and cheese’s recipe a friend sent me a few months back. I have tried this one a few times, it is always a hit. Go ahead. Try it. Next time you make macaroni au gratin, try adding 1 or 2 more cheeses to your usual. Your palate will thank you.
For the Sauce
8 oz. sharp cheddar, shredded
8 oz. Gruyere
8 oz. Neufchatel or cream cheese, cubed
8 oz. smoked Provolone, cubed
4 tbsp. butter
4 tbsp. flour
4 c. milk
A dash or three of hot sauce (optional)
16 oz. orecchiette, cooked and drained
For the topping:
1 sleeve Saltines, crumbled (or panko)
3 tbsp. shredded or grated Parmaggiano
2 tbsp. chopped fresh sage
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and stir with a whisk, constantly, for about a minute. You want the mixture to be smooth, and you want it to have time to reach a golden-brown color.
Begin adding the milk slowly, continuing to whisk constantly, until all the milk is incorporated. Settle in for a long, constant whisking process. This has to be done slowly or the milk will scald, so don’t try to turn up the heat and rush this part.
In about 15 to 20 mn, the milk should be just below a simmer, steaming but not really bubbling, and the mixture should be thickening. That’s when it’s time to add the cheddar, the Swiss cheese and the Neufchatel. Whisk in the cheese until it has all melted and has incorporated into the sauce. Add some salt and freshly-ground pepper to the mix (about 1 1/2 tsp. of salt, and maybe three grinds with a pepper mill), as well as the hot sauce. (A note on the hot sauce: It will not make your mac-and-cheese spicy, but it will add another background flavor note. Trust me on this…it’s good.)
Pour the cheese mixture into the pasta and stir to mix it all up. At this point, add the smoked cheese cubes and mix it into the pasta-cheese sauce mixture.
Pour the whole mixture into a greased casserole dish (I use a 9 x 13 stoneware pan for this – this means more surface area for the crunchy goodness on the top).
Mix the Saltines, the Parmaggiano, and the sage in a bowl. Sprinkle the combination evenly over the top of the casserole. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the topping is brown and bubbly.
Nadege Fleurimond is the owner & business manager of Fleurimond Catering, Inc., an off-premise catering firm serving the NY/NJ/CT/MA areas. She is also the author of a Taste of Life: A Culinary Memoir, a humorous and heart warming compilation of recipes and funny anecdotes. (http://www.nadegefleurimond.com)
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