What do you think of when you think of mac and cheese? Maybe you’re thinking you don’t actually think about it all that much. But for me, it brings up two specific memories: 1) Childhood. I mean, who didn’t grow up on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese boxes?? And 2) College. When you’re poor and living in a dorm with only a microwave as a kitchen, sometimes your diet becomes purely mac and cheese and Coca-cola–especially if you’re me. But recently, something happened to me that inspired me to create today’s new recipe: my Next-Level Mac & Cheese.
Well, what happened? The other night I went out to a bar–as one over 21 does every once and a while. I’m not a huge party person by nature. But my roommates urged me to get out for once. So, I indulged a little. And as you can probably guess, I got a little–how do I put this delicately–wobbly. My first thought was, wow, is my tolerance really that bad now? Then my second was, how much tequila was in those drinks? Luckily, there was a food truck stationed at the bar we were at, and it stayed open late.
So, I perused the menu and settled on something small–a side dish of mac and cheese. Now, maybe it was just the tequila. But I’m pretty positive it was the greatest mac and cheese I’ve ever had. It was so good that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. I even find myself contemplating using my Favor app to get some delivered to my house! But then I thought, why pay to have it delivered? I can cook! Why not try and make it myself?! So that’s what I’m doing. I’m going beyond the Kraft box and going straight for the adult version.
My goal was to make my own version of mac and cheese on the next level–an amped up version that is reminiscent of your childhood years. To be clear, I didn’t use fancy cheeses, nor did I add anything like lobster or shrimp. (Although, I’ve had lobster mac and cheese, and it is divine). For now, I just hope to make something that will have you thinking about mac and cheese in a new way. Whether or not I got there is debatable, but here’s what we got so far.
Confession time: I don’t love cheese. In fact, when I had my surgery it was one of the things that I couldn’t process very well for months. And I was fine with that, because I don’t love cheese. I like my cheese in moderation–very moderate. I like it to be there, but only as a complementary garnish, not the shining star. The only true exceptions to this are pizza and mac and cheese.
Obviously you can’t have mac without the cheese. There’s just no getting around that–nor would I even dare suggest it. But even in my non-cheese-worshiping opinion, the best kind of mac all comes down to the cheese. You want to pick cheeses that complement each other in flavor, and ones that melt well, because that will be necessary in this cooking process. For my choice, I went with a gruyere and smoked cheddar.
Gruyere can be sweet and salty, two things that I think perfectly go together. It also has a bit of nuttiness and is naturally creamy when melted. Cheddar is a bit more bitter depending on its level of sharpness. I happened to go with a smoked sharp cheddar from good ol’ HEB. The bitterness in the cheddar will offset the sweetness in the gruyere. I also wanted a smokey quality to give it that fully-body feel. I also wanted the taste of protein without there actually being any.
Now, in my opinion there’s nothing worse than a dry mac and cheese. I hate going in for the pasta and coming out with either no sauce or just a coating of cheese. Like I said, this is the only time that I actually want an overload of cheese. So, I took a note from Kraft, and added a little creaminess to the dish by adding some milk. Lastly, I added a touch of honey for extra sweetness and a bit of chicken stock for extra smokiness. Remember, we want this to be a savory dish, not a complete repeat of what we already know as mac and cheese. (For a vegetarian version, use veggie stock. Or for an even more amped up version, mix in some bacon or spam). For some extra texture, I added some panko bread crumbs. And to top it all off, some chopped parsley.
The cooking itself is pretty standard. First, boil your macaroni pasta of choice–I went for traditional–in a pot of salted water. While that’s going, combine the remaining ingredients into a separate saucepan. Melt the cheese, add the liquids, and mix together until it forms a creamy sauce. Once the pasta is done and drained, fold it into the cheese sauce. Allow the ooey-gooey madness to get all stuck together in those noodles. Fold in your breadcrumbs of choice and parsley bits. Season to your liking, and enjoy!
I’m not claiming to be an expert. Nor do I even remotely think that this version could even compare to the late-night one I had at the bar. But every once in a while isn’t it great how other meals can inspire us to create? In a time when I’m not cooking as much as I’d like, it feels nice to get into the kitchen and try and get creative again. Who knows what I’ll be making next? Either way, it feels good to step into adulthood with non other than a re-imagined dish from a childhood (and college-hood) past-time. So have at it, and may I suggest a tequila shot to go with it?
What’s your favorite ‘wobbly’ food? What do you like in your mac and cheese?
Next-Level Mac & Cheese
- 1 box elbow noodles
- 4 oz gruyere cheese chopped or shredded
- 6 oz sharp smoked cheddar chopped or shredded
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 tsp honey
- 1 tbsp chicken stock
- 1/2 tsp chili powder
- 1/2 tsp nutmeg
- 1/4 cup bread crumbs
- 1/2 tbsp parsley minced
Boil salted water for pasta. Cook as instructed on package. Drain and set aside.
In a small saucepan, add heavy cream and both cheeses. Mix until melted and fully combined. Bring to a simmer. Let thicken.
Add the honey and chicken stock. Mix in and bring to a simmer again. Add both spices and mix thoroughly. Turn off heat.
Pour the cheese mixture over the cooked pasta. Mix to coat. Fold in the bread crumbs. Mix again. Top with parsley and serve!