Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Recipes: Baked Mac and Cheese

I admit that I’m a “Southern” transplant.  I don’t understand NASCAR.  I don’t speak with much of a southern drawl.  And my life does not begin and end with football.  But I have learned that the Thanksgiving table in the South is not complete until it is adorned with cornbread dressing (not stuffing), giblet and egg gravy, and the baked macaroni and cheese that travels from house to house in a Pyrex dish.  Like most southern meals, the Thanksgiving side dishes always seem to outshine the main entrée.  Turkey, ham, or crown roast…who cares?  Just don’t forget to bring the sweet potatoes and pecan pie. 

T. J.’s Mac and Cheese (from the Nook Tavern in Huntsville, AL)
BY: Samuel Parks
(November 2011)

A long time ago, long before powdered cheese came in a box with cheap macaroni noodles, a young man visited France and Italy.  Upon his return home, he lavished his guests with new dishes and recipes that he acquired during his travels.  The man of course was Thomas Jefferson.  And among the many things Mr. Jefferson gave to his country, was a fondness for baked pasta with a creamy béchamel sauce.  Today, we simply call it “Mac ‘n Cheese.”

What better way to celebrate the ubiquitous Thanksgiving Mac ‘n Cheese, than with an updated version from one of the South’s first “Gentlemen,” our nation’s third Commander-in-Chief, Thomas Jefferson. 

This updated version remains true to the original spirit of Mr. Jefferson’s recipe, but includes a few minor modern modifications.  The creamy béchamel sauce is still there, but I’ve incorporated a mildly hoppy beer to add a little bite to the sauce and some necessary flavor contrast.  Additionally, this version incorporates a fair amount of meat, which almost certainly would have been omitted from T. J.’s original.  While it may not be the “real McCoy,” Tom would be proud of this latest incarnation of his timeless classic.  Try this recipe for your Thanksgiving feast, and you may never be able to go back to the blue box.

INGREDIENTS

·         3 Tbs. Kosher salt (for the pasta water)
·         1 lb. Cavatelli pasta, or large rigatoni noodles
·         8 Tbs. unsalted butter
·         6 Tbs. all-purpose flour
·         2 cups whole milk
·         1 cup mildly hoppy lager beer, such as Pilsner Urquell
·         1 cup heavy cream
·         2 egg yolks
·         1 lb. shredded white cheddar
·         6 oz. shredded Romano cheese
·         6 oz. shredded Asiago cheese
·         4 oz. shredded Fontina cheese
·         2 cups panko bread crumbs
·         1 medium red onion, finely diced
·         1 clove garlic, finely minced
·          3 Tbs. fresh parsley, finely chopped
·         ½ lb. bacon, cooked and crumbled (if you’re feeling a bit lazy on Thanksgiving just substitute an equal amount of REAL bacon bits…no one will very know)
·         Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


PREPARATION
1.      Add the 3 Tbs. salt to a large pot of boiling water (I like to use a 5-6 quart pot for this step).  Add the pasta to the water (do not put the pasta in before the water comes to a boil).  Cook for approximately 5-6 minutes until the pasta is al dente.  Take off the heat and remove from the water; do not rinse.  Rinsing will remove the starch, which will play an important in the preparation of this dish.
2.      Heat the beer, milk, and cream in a pot on the stove.  Be sure to keep the temperature to a lazy simmer.  DO NOT SCALD THE MILK
3.      In a large pot melt the butter over medium heat.  Once the melted butter has stopped foaming, add the onion and garlic and cook until tender (approximately 5-6 minutes).  Then add the parsley and cook for another 1-2 minutes.
4.      Once the garlic, onion, and parsley have been cooked, turn the heat to high and add the flour; mix vigorously until all of the flour has been incorporated.  Cook on high for 2-3 minutes, just until the flour and butter mixture is a light shade of tan.  Congratulations!  You just made a roux!
5.      Once the roux is ready, immediately reduce the heat.  Then in a slow but steady stream add the heated milk, cream, and beer to the roux.  Stirring constantly.
6.      Once the milk mixture has been completely incorporated into the roux, return the pot to a slightest simmer. 
7.      Began adding the cheddar, Fontina, and Asiago cheeses to the pot.  Stirring constantly until it is fully incorporated.  Remove from heat once the cheese has melted.
8.      Combine the pasta, bacon, and cheese sauce.
9.      Place into a greased baking dish, and cover with the breadcrumbs and Romano cheese.
10.  Bake at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately 15-20 minutes, or just until the dish is bubbling and the topping has browned.

Yields 4-6 entrée sized servings (8-10 servings as a side dish)

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