Sunday, 7 April 2013

Mac & Cheese, my way...

Who doesn't love this classic American casserole? It's a favourite among kids to seniors alike and everyone has their own way of making it. Here is one way I like it. I think a good mac and cheese should be very cheesy and have a few vegetables. Mac and cheese is very rich and heavy so I find vegetables not only contribute great colour and flavour, but it lightens the dish up a bit. I can enjoy it with or without meat, but in this version I did use some crispy, diced pancetta. Pancetta is an Italian bacon that has not been smoked. I also think that the breadcrumb topping should be shatteringly crispy. You can use regular Italian breadcrumbs, but I like panko breadcrumbs. They turn so crispy and it's a great contrast to the ooey-gooey cheesiness of the pasta. When I was in Calgary last October I visited an old friend of mine. She has two little boys aged 4 and 2. She made mac & cheese during my visit and she uses rice crispies for her topping. Her boys love it. I have to admit, it wasn't bad at all. Food for thought - literally.

I'd love to hear about how you make your mac and cheese. Feel free to leave a comment or tweet me @BramLlewellyn and let me know what you do. You never know. I may be keen to try it myself!

You don't have to feel confined to using the traditional elbow macaroni option. Though that is traditional, you could use penne, seashells, farfalle (bowtie), corkscrew, fusilli, et cetera. I used a variety called fiorelli, which are tube shaped and kind of look like flowers. Here's a closer look.

For the cheeses I used sharp cheddar, gruyere and Parmigiano Reggiano. Sharp cheddar is traditional, because it has such a great, bold flavour and it melts so well. Gruyere melts well too and has a semi-sharp but nuttier flavour. Parmigiano goes in just about all of my pasta dishes, but it also has a nutty taste and a wonderful aged aroma. 


4 cups of dry fiorelli pasta
200 grams of sharp cheddar, grated
200 grams of gruyere, grated
1/3 cup of Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated (plus more for the topping)
1/2 cup of panko breadcrumbs
4 cups of milk
1/2 cup of unsalted butter
1/2 cup of flour
150 grams of pancetta, diced
1 Spanish onion, diced
3 carrots, peeled and diced
1/2 red pepper, diced
1 crown of broccoli, preferably young broccoli, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced 
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp nutmeg, freshly grated
Salt & Pepper

Preheat your oven to 400F/205C. Cook the pasta as per the package instructions. Since water takes times to boil, that should be your first step.    

In a skillet or pan over medium heat, add the olive oil. Fry the pancetta for 3-4 minutes or until it is nice and crispy. Remove and place on a paper towel. Using a pair of tongs and a paper towel, mop up any excess fat in the pan, leaving only a couple of tablespoons.

Add the onion and carrot to the pan, season and cook for a few minutes until the onion becomes translucent. Then add the red pepper, garlic and broccoli. Continue to fry for a few more minutes or until the vegetables have softened but still have a bit of bite to them. 

If you finish this part before your sauce is done, then just set it aside with the pancetta. Next we'll go over how the sauce is made, which roughly takes about the same as the pancetta and the veggies.

Time to make a béchamel sauce. It's very easy. Just melt the butter in a heavy saucepan. Add the flour and stir for about a minute. Just enough to cook the rawness out of the flour. This is called a roux. Add the cayenne and nutmeg to the roux and stir. Then add a cup of cold milk and whisk to combine. It may form a gluey paste at first, don't panic. You just want to add the milk in installments to avoid any lumps. Just whisk constantly, adding the milk 1 cup at a time. Bring the béchamel up to a boil and then reduce the heat to a low simmer. The sauce will thicken up. You want it to be just thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon and retain a line if you run your finger across it. Leave it to simmer, giving it an occasional stir for about 8 minutes. Then add half the cheese and stir until the cheese has melted completely. Then add the remaining cheese and repeat.
*Fact: Adding cheese to a béchamel sauce makes it a "mornay" sauce.  


When your sauce, pancetta, veggies and pasta are all complete. Combine and stir to incorporate completely. It is important to note that this is going to go in a hot oven for about half an hour. So the pasta should not be fully cooked all the way though. Cook it to a strong al dente. 

Then pour your beautifully cheesy contents into a casserole dish. If you have a ceramic or pyrex dish, those work best. Otherwise, you can use a steel dish as I am here. 

Then dust the top of the mac & cheese with the panko breadcrumbs into an even layer. Grate some more Parmigiano Reggiano over top (maybe about 1/2 cup) and a bit of ground black pepper. Then place in the oven for 20-25 minutes. Recipes will usually tell you to brown for 20-25 minutes. I'll be honest, mine took closer to 30. This will completely depend on your oven so just keep and eye on it and take out when you are satisfied with the browning of the breadcrumbs.

Alright so, warning, this is going to smell amazing when you take it out of the oven. It will also be piping hot though. To ensure that you enjoy this while keeping the first layer of your upper mouth intact, I implore you to resist temptation and let it rest for about 20 minutes. Your patience will be rewarded, I can assure you. 

Even with all of the vegetables that we added, this is still a rich and heavy dish. This obviously isn't something you would eat every day but once in a while it's good to indulge. You only live once. Serve it with a side salad and have a tiny portion if it makes you feel better, lol. Either way you'd better try it.


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