The original recipe called for gruyere, sharp cheddar, and a blue cheese (Ina specifically recommends roquefort) and an addition of crisp bacon. I replaced the gruyere with my beloved prima donna, which I’ve always likened to sort of a combination of swiss and parmesan – salty and tangy, hard but not crumbly with a smooth mouthfeel, and in my experience quite meltable – and used a fairly high quality stilton for the blue cheese. I also skipped the bacon in favor of a rather healthier combination of sauteed white button mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and red onions. Finally, I made my standard substitution of whole wheat elbow macaroni for regular white pasta (hence the dark color in my finished dish). Interesting to note, I recently discovered that Hodgson Mills, my favorite specialty flour producer, also sells whole wheat pasta that is quite tasty.
Otherwise I followed the recipe technique almost exactly, and although it was nothing new for me, as I make mac and cheese with basically this method all the time, it came out extremely well.
Partial mis en place – white button mushrooms, diced sundried tomatoes and red onions, whole wheat pasta, and cheeses.
I started by getting some salted water heating on the stove while dicing up the sundried tomatoes and red onions and thinly slicing the mushrooms. When the water came to a rolling boil, I dumped in the pasta and gave it a stir to keep it from sticking.
Then I shredded the prima donna and cheddar and crumbled the stilton – I used rather less of the stilton in proportion to the other cheeses than the recipe called for, because I’m just not that fond of blue cheese. I probably used half what the recipe called for.
While the pasta finished cooking, I heated some olive oil in a small skillet and sauteed the mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and onions with a bit of salt and chicken broth until they were softened and any liquid in the pan had evaporated, allowing them to caramelize just a bit. These I set aside until it was time to assemble the final casserole.
I cooked the pasta about 5 minutes so that it would be just slightly underdone, wanting it to finish cooking in the oven so it would soak up all the flavors of the cheese and veg.
One of the complaints many of the Barefoot Bloggers seem to have about this recipe is the number of pots, pans, and tools required to make this dish. But with a little thought, its pretty easy to cut down on the number of dishes necessary. For example, the recipe directs you to scald the milk in a small saucepan. But I see no reason to do that – why not just microwave it in the measuring cup? All you’re really looking to do is warm it through so that it thickens evenly when added to the roux (equal parts flour and butter). And if you’re patient enough to take your time with things, you can use the same pan that you used to cook the pasta to make the sauce – just wait till the pasta is cooked and drained, the rinse out the pot and put back on the heat to make the roux. Right there you’ve knocked out two dirty pots.
Anyway, once the pasta was draining in a colander I got the roux started – 1 tbsp each flour and melted butter, cooked for just a minute or so to cut down on the raw flour taste – I added the warmed milk slowly and stirred with a whisk to get rid of any potential lumps. This mixture cooked for a minute or two until it started to thicken, then was removed from the heat. I added in the cheese mixture in 3 parts, whisking well after each addition to ensure that the cheese melted, creating a smooth, thick cheese sauce. Once all the cheese was melted I added some freshly cracked black pepper and a bit of freshly grated nutmeg, and a shake of garlic powder because I never make anything savory without garlic.
Once the sauce was done I stirred in the pasta and sauteed veg, then divided the resulting mixture evenly between 4 small casserole/brulee dishes.
Another note here: the original recipe claimed it would serve two, and I knew I wanted to have this along with some green veg for dinner, so I halved it, expecting to end up with two appropriately sized side-dish portions. I ended up with twice that much, which tells me that the original recipe would easily serve four for dinner as a main course. I can’t imagine the appetite that would allow a single person to eat the entirety of the amount I ended up with… it was a LOT of macaroni. Not that I’m complaining, because it meant both J and I got to have an especially yummy lunch today, but it seems like a rather major flaw in the original recipe.
The casseroles were placed on a baking sheet for easy movement, then topped with a mixture of plain dry bread crumbs and dry thyme, as I was lacking the fresh basil that the recipe called for and was frankly too lazy to process my own soft bread crumbs. The baking sheet was slid into a 400 degree oven to bake for approximately 20 minutes (adjusted from the original 35-40 mins to account for the much smaller dish size) while we enjoyed a glass of Barefoot Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon (appropriate, no?) and prepped our green bean/snap pea side dish.
The smell while these things were cooking was fantastic, and when the oven timer beeped I opened the door to reveal some beautifully golden-brown dishes of deliciously aromatic mac-and cheese. It was all we could do to let them rest and cool down for 5 minutes while we finished the veg accompaniment.
Now, while I can imagine that the original, unaltered recipe would be delicious (because I absolutely love gruyere, and everyone knows that bacon makes everything better), this was the most satisfying mac and cheese I’ve made in awhile. The flavor was very well balanced between the sweet sundried tomatoes and onions, earthy mushrooms, and salty/tangy cheese, and texturely it was perfect, crispy topping hiding a smooth, creamy interior. J expressed that he would have liked a more pronounced blue cheese flavor, which undoubtedly would have come through had I kept to the original cheese proportions, and unfortunately I think the identity of the prima donna was lost aong the other flavors, but the cheesiness as a whole was delightfully sharp and well-rounded. Grown-up mac and cheese, indeed! I can’t imagine many kids who would appreciate this dish for what it was.
Thank goodness I’m a grown-up.
Would I make this again? Absolutely. But then, as I said, this wasn’t all that different from my standard mac and cheese technique, which I have always loved. I just wish I could allow myself to make it more often, because this really was the epitome of comfort food to me.
I definitely recommend the vegetarian substitutions I made here though – even an adamant meat-eater like J didn’t miss the bacon in this, though we both agreed that the addition of any pork product would just about throw this dish into the stratosphere.
I would like to try a similar dish with almost entirely prima donna – we made a fondue with it once and it was out of this world, so I can’t imagine what it would be like as the sole cheese in mac and cheese – and would also like to experiment with other add-ins (chicken and peas perhaps? Or maybe sausage and peppers, especially if some parmesan and shredded mozzarella got added to the recipe). Or on a slightly weirder vein, I’ve got some fresh pumpernickel bread crumbs that I think would make a lovely mac and cheese topping… imagine the cheese sauce made with sharp cheddar and beer and mixed with some diced kielbasa and drained sauerkraut. I love German-inspired food, and this simply must be tried.
But that’s the beauty of a dish like this – infinite possibilities for variation, and infinite ways to adjust the recipe to suit your tastes. Really, its not so much a recipe as a technique, and once you learn that technique, you could do almost anything.
I love that kind of recipe.
Next up for the Barefoot Bloggers: Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup!