Guys, I’ve been out of the game too long with the recipe posting. Life has been hectic, but when is it not, really? I’ve got way more interests than there will ever be hours in the day to accommodate even a fraction of them, at least while I still have to spend my weekday hours making my living as a cubicle rat in Corporate America (until this blog hits it big, of course! :P). I had even gotten so lazy with my routine over the past few months that while I was still creating recipes, I was forgetting to write them down. It was my fairly typical “It’s 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night and I have to haul ass to bed and I’ll remember this until I write it down tomorrow” M.O. – but then I was completely forgetting to write the recipe down until weeks later, when I wanted to post it! Yeah . . .. Needless to say, I’m in the process of remaking two recipes I’ve already shot photos for to make sure I’m not recalling the ingredient ratios incorrectly. Here’s to dropping lazy habits in 2016!
But you know what’s great about this macaroni and cheese? I don’t need to remember anything. Because yeah, that’s the mark of a great macaroni and cheese, as my mother taught me: it’s best with no measuring involved. OK, yeah, it kind of sucks when you make the best macaroni and cheese of your life and then you have no idea how to recreate it. But that’s part of the fun! Every time I make mac and cheese, it’s a bit different, and it’s fun to try to top myself every time.
The one thing that my mother does with her amazing macaroni and cheese that I’ve never quite mastered is starting with a roux, the flour-and-butter-and-milk-fancy-French combo thing. OK, I know I need to know how to make one to be a respectable adult and all. But it’s so tedious when I’m craving mac and cheese and I’m craving it now! So imagine my delight when I was searching online for how to make a roux and came upon The Kitchn post, “How to Make the Best Macaroni and Cheese on the Stove,” which states that making a roux for macaroni and cheese isn’t entirely necessary. Holla! I was in! The Kitchn site is basically my bible with all cooking-related questions. I trust it with my culinary life, so of course I was going to follow this alternative for a roux for my mac and cheese, a technique that instead calls for warming a cup of milk in a pan, then whisking two tablespoons of flour into a separate half a cup of milk and stirring that into the pan of warmed milk once that has just started steaming. You keep whisking for three or four more minutes until you’re ready to add the cheese. Easy!
On to the noodles. The noodles I used for this recipe were sorta fancy. I bought them from a pasta vendor during a visit to Pike Place Market in Seattle. There was a half of a pound each of an Extreme Habañero radiatore (the fat, curled in, deeply-grooved ones) and a Southwestern mix with noodles of different shapes (shown scattered in the photo above). The habañero ones were NOT messing around. Suckers were fiery! Because of that, the saleswoman who sold them to me recommended me getting the much milder Southwestern noodles to mix with and temper them. Wise choice.
Now, the cheese! Picking the cheese I’m going to use for a batch of mac and cheese is probably my favorite part of the deal aside from the actual eating of it. Because I knew the noodles were going to be intense, I decided to go with a mild cheese sauce. Usually I’m all for more distinct cheeses, such as sharp cheddar, in my cheese sauce. But this time I went with the more docile Swiss, Fontina, and Kerrygold Dubliner (which characterizes itself as a “sweet,” “nutty” cheese) to really highlight the spicy flavor of the noodles.
OK, to continue the deconstruction here, I’ll mention the leek. Adding diced, sauteed leek to mac and cheese is not my usual M.O. I would usually add some diced onion – about a half of a medium-sized onion. This would be delicious sauteed for a few minutes and substituted for the leek. In fact, I prefer regular onion to the leek. But don’t get me wrong: it was delicious and added an interesting dynamic to this mac and cheese. So it’s up to you which one you want to use.
Finally, I have to mention the chips. The glorious potato chips! OK, so y’all know I try to cook clean, avoiding processed-crap ingredients and seeking healthier modifications. But there’s really nothing quite like a crushed-potato-chip crust on your baked mac and cheese! You can use organic potato chips, of course, to make things healthier. Either way, I prefer the ridged or wavy ones (I like how they are thicker); otherwise, plain-textured potato chips will work just fine.
OK, time to wrap it up, Jackie – on to the recipe! Actually, it’s less of a recipe and more of an ingredient list, but you’ve gathered that by now. Have fun making this mac and cheese with your own particular spin – and feel free to post in the comments section below what cheeses you use!
-1 pound’s worth of noodles (If you’re looking to use noodles with a spicy kick like I did, I found this shop on Etsy that sells several varieties of great-sounding handmade spicy pasta!)
-1/3 cup diced leeks (Here’s a great video on how to prepare leeks for cooking by Real Simple. I had never cooked them before this and found it very helpful. The key: rinse, rinse, rinse those suckers!)
-2 teaspoons grapeseed oil
-1 1/2 cups of whole-fat milk, plus extra to use in thinning sauce as needed
-2 tablespoons of flour
-3 1-pound blocks of different cheeses (You will probably use at least two-thirds of each block if you like a thick cheese sauce, as I do. You can prep the cheeses by cutting them into little chunks, roughly one-inch by one-inch, or cut pieces off of the blocks as you go.)
-Several large handfuls of potato chips (As mentioned, I prefer ridged or wavy plain-flavored chips.)
-Salt and cracked pepper to taste – and if you aren’t using spicy noodles and would like some spice, add 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Add the pound of noodles to a large pot of boiling water sprinkled with a little salt. Cook until al dente, about seven minutes if you are using thicker noodles. Then drain and spread into a 9×9-inch baking dish.
Add the diced leeks to a medium-sized pan glazed with the two teaspoons of grapeseed oil and set over medium heat. Sautee until soft, about five to seven minutes, stirring frequently.
Add a cup of the milk to a medium-sized pot over medium heat. Pour the remaining half a cup of milk into a bowl and whisk in the two tablespoons of flour. Once the milk in the pot has just started steaming, whisk the milk-four mixture into it, then continue whisking for three or four more minutes. Now you’ve got your base for your cheese sauce!
Next comes the fun part. Start plopping little chunks of the several cheeses you are using into the milk base and stirring until they melt and meld into the sauce. There is no exact science to this, but patience is key. It’s best to let the cheese you throw in melt fully before you add more. If the sauce is getting thicker than you’d like, temper it by adding more milk, a little at a time. I always end up needing to add at least a little more milk to my sauce once or twice to ensure it doesn’t get too thick.
When are you done adding in cheese? How will you know when you have enough sauce? You kind of have to eyeball it. My philosophy is that you can never have too much cheese sauce; it’s better to go on the heavier side with it than to be lacking. Keep adding in cheese and milk until you’ve achieved a texture and amount that seem good to you. Then stir in the sauteed leeks and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Pour the finished cheese sauce evenly over the noodles. Crush the potato chips and spread them in handfuls over the top until you’ve got a thick, even coating.
Bake for about 20 to 30 minutes, until the crust has browned to a nice golden consistency. Serve immediately. Mmmm, cheesy-fatty-comfort-food goodness! Makes six to eight servings.