Macaroni & Cheese: The Ultimate Comfort Food
I grew up eating basic food: no frills, no hidden ingredients, all good taste and comfort. My mom’s macaroni & cheese was the best. None of the recipes she made are written anywhere, but I remember them all. Her macaroni & cheese, or "mac-a-cheese" as we’ve come to call it, was always made of elbow macaroni pieces — the large ones. She’d make a skillet full of white sauce, grate cheddar cheese, layer all three and then pour some milk over it all for good measure. Once in a while, she’d throw in some canned tomatoes, too, and I loved their tart flavor with the cheese.
Curious person that I am, occasionally, a mac-a-cheese recipe will catch my eye, and I’ll give it a try, just to consider that there may be another recipe out there that isn’t just about more steps or ingredients. And it’s your lucky day, because I have found two that are pretty good, even if there are more steps, more ingredients, and heck-of-a-lot more calories. Like we need those, right?
I found the first recipe in a magazine last year. You’re thinking, what a shocker, right? It accompanied an advertisement for Tillamook cheese (which is mysteriously absent in my photo above), which is being run again this year. "Penne Rigate Macaroni and Cheese baked with Truffle Essence" is what I would call the elegant version of mac-a-cheese. No question about it. Pricey, too. But I had to try it out and see what that smoked cheddar and black truffle oil did to a classic comfort dish. Evidently, most black truffle contains no black truffle. Instead, a synthetic flavoring agent is used to give it a flavor thought to be similar to the real thing. I did make sure I had the real thing. My bottle’s ingredients read: "extra virgin olive oil, black truffle (tuber melanosporum), natural flavoring." No artificial anything. Of course, it set me back $18 for 1.86 oz., too.
More recently, I came across "Mac & Cheese for Grown-ups" in fresh magazine which is affiliated with The Best of fine Cooking magazine. This recipe caught my eye because it contains four types of cheese, one of which is blue cheese, and I immediately wondered if there could be too much of a good thing. I don’t know how blue cheese can’t overpower every other flavor in this dish. My husband loves Four Cheese Pasta, and Four Cheese Pizza, but this was something all together different. Not exactly conducive to low fat eating, either. I guess both recipes at least meet the qualifications of mac-a-cheese and comfort food, though.
Penne Rigate Macaroni and Cheese baked with Truffle Essence
3 T kosher salt
8 oz. penne rigate pasta, dry
1 T black truffle oil
2 T shallots, minced
3 oz. applewood smoked bacon, minced
1 T garlic, minced
2 T olive oil
2 T all purpose flour
1-1/2 c. heavy cream
1 T minced basil
1/4 tsp. minced thyme
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/8 tsp. black pepper
3 c. white extra sharp cheddar, shredded
1/2 c. pecan quarters
1 c. smoked medium cheddar, shredded
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bring 1-gallon water to rapid boil with kosher salt in an 8-qt. pot. Add pasta to water and stir. Boil for 5-6 minutes total. Pasta should be slightly undercooked. Drain off all water through a colander, sit one minute and toss in a bowl with the black truffle oil. Reserve.
Combine shallots, bacon, garlic, and olive oil in 4-qt. pot and cook slowly for 10 minutes using low heat. Add the flour, raise heat to medium and cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Temper in the heavy cream and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes on low. Add in the herbs and seasonings. Stir in 3 c. of White Cheddar until smooth. Add in the truffle scented pasta and stir until evenly combined. Divide into individual shallow baking dishes (welsh rarebits) and top with the pecans and the shredded medium cheddar.
Bake for 10-15 minutes until bubbly and slightly browned on top.
Notes: I made this dish sometime early last spring. Clearly, I was still in my "yellow stage" with my little camera. Good thing we learn a bit as we proceed, isn’t it? Moving right along, I used a convection setting, and used yellow sharp cheddar instead of white. Also, the medium cheddar was apple smoked. I figured the bacon was, so why not? And I also omitted the bread crumbs. I’m not much of a fan of bread crumbs on the top of baked food for some reason. It never really seems to add very much, and if the addition is about adding color, cheese dishes always brown nicely, so I don’t see the point. This recipe was not bad. The truffle oil was highly noticeable, and I would have wondered what the flavor was had I not known. I haven’t eaten truffles often enough to be able to adequately describe their flavor. Even now, it reminds me more of garlic, and I think that must be one of the "natural" flavorings in my bottle of oil. I wonder if I made the recipe again with garlic oil instead of truffle oil what the difference would be. The smoked cheddar flavor also stands out in this recipe, but the flavors work well together. I did not use the pecans called for, although after eating it, know that I would have liked them in this dish. People enjoyed this dish, but there were no raves.
Luxurious Four-Cheese Macaroni & Cheese
3 c. whole milk
4 T unsalted butter
1 med onion, finely diced (about 1 c.)
1 bay leaf
1/4 c. all-purpose flour
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp. Tabasco sauce; more to taste
freshly ground black pepper
5 oz. Gruyere, coarsely grated (about 1-3/4 c. lightly packed)
1/2 lb. blue cheese (such as Maytag Blue), crumbled
1 lb. dried penne rigate pasta
1 T finely grated lemon zest
11 oz. Monterey Jack, cut into 1/2-in. dice (2 c.)
1/2 c. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 T fresh thyme leaves
2-1/2 oz. Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated (scant 1 c.)
3/4 c. fresh bread crumbs
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Put a large pot of well-salted water on to boil.
Heat the milk in a small saucepan over med-low heat to just below a simmer. Remove from the heat and cover to keep hot. Melt the butter in a med saucepan over med-low heat. Add the onion and bay leaf. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion starts to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in the hot milk, bring to a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes, whisking frequently, until thickened and smooth. Season with 1 tsp. salt, the nutmeg, the Tabasco, and pepper to taste. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Stir in the Gruyere and blue cheese.
Cook the pasta in the boiling water to al dente, following the package directions. Drain well and return to the pot. Toss the lemon zest and half of the Monterey Jack into the pasta while it’s still hot; add the cheese sauce and quickly toss to combine. Stir in the parsley and thyme and transfer half of the pasta to a large (3-qt.) shallow casserole or lasagna pan. Sprinkle with the remaining Monterey Jack and half of the Parmigiano; top with the remaining pasta. Sprinkle with the remaining Parmigiano and the breadcrumbs. Bake until bubbling and golden, 50 to 60 minutes. Let rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
Notes: This obviously was an incredibly rich dish. I began to have difficulty when it came to adding the last cheese — the Jack at 11 oz. Although I estimated that amount in cubes and was prepared to put it in the dish, I ended up only adding half the amount. The blue cheese stood out the most. I wasn’t surprised. And although good, I ended up confirming overkill on the cheese in this recipe. The parmesan wasn’t the least bit noticed. The recipe is huge and would server more than eight in my opinion. It is so rich, a smaller serving was perfect — a lot of flavor goes a long way. Serve it with a good salad and you’ll be fine.
Conclusion? The biggest difference between these two versions of mac-a-cheese is the whole cheese sauce component. In the second recipe, it’s quite the undertaking and I began to wonder if it would all fit in the pan! It’s fun to try a spin on a dish that is an old family favorite, but it just isn’t my mom’s mac-a-cheese. These dishes are both worth trying, and each is good enough to consider as something a bit more fancy than usual. But cut back on the size of the second recipe. It goes a very long way. Your arteries will thank you.