Cookbooks, like lingerie, are gifts that keep on giving. JB gave me a tin of excellent (if not terribly manly) Earl Grey Lavender tea for Christmas, and with it, a copy of “Macaroni and Cheese” by Marlena Spieler, with the understanding that I would try for the crown at this year’s Mac and Cheese showdown at the annual Turkey and Turkey Thanksgiving party (and if I happened to make a few practice batches for her, she would suffer through one or two helpings.) Last year’s competition was class against sass as Roland’s smoky, upscale, herbaceous effort was barely beaten out by Deb’s perfectly executed, old-fashioned cheesy elbows. Having been beaten by this same dish two years ago, I can tell you – there was no shame in losing. Deb don’t f*ck around. When I went up against her, it was the culinary equivalent of a UFC bout, without any actual face-kicking. (At least until we started drinking Wild Turkey.)
This year, however, I have time to sharpen my game and run a few preliminary rounds against lesser foes (yes I’m talkin’ trash early. BRING IT) and, of course, I’ve got you people. I’ve hacked Marlena’s baked M+C formula very slightly, though, to be fair, only in this context could roughly doubling the amount of cheese employed be called “slight tweaking.” If you try this version, please, lemme know what you think, and, if you vary it at all, lemme know what you tried and how it worked out for you. BECAUSE THIS IS THE THUNDERDOME, MOTHERF*CKER. TWO COOKS ENTER, ONE COOK LEAVES.
Baked Macaroni and Cheese
16 oz Barilla Campanelle Pasta (though any tubed pasta will do)
1/2 pound salted butter
5 tablespoons flour
4 cups hot milk (the first time I tried to make this, I tried heating the milk in JB’s kettle, not realizing that milk behaves differently than water when heated and boiled. I came back into the kitchen after a few minutes to find a graceful stream of hot milk shooting out of the steam-whistle, arcing over the right-side burner, hitting the side of the fridge and pooling at the foot of the stove. So. To sum up. Don’t heat milk in a kettle. I am a dumbass.)
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon smoked paprika (go to Whole Foods or order some off the internet, already. Get the Spanish stuff. Oh hells yes, get the Spanish stuff.)
2 tablespoons dry mustard
24 oz sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
16 oz mild white meltable cheese (I’d go with Monterey Jack) shredded
10 oz sharp blue cheese, crumbled
8 oz freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 cups panko-style breadcrumbs
1/2 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt a biggish pot of water. Don’t mess around with the salt. Salt the hell out of it. Preheat your oven to 350°.
Boil the pasta, two minutes shy of the instructions on the box. Drain and return to the pot.
In a big nonstick saucepan, melt 5 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Sprinkle the flour evenly into the butter and cook for a few minutes. Stir with a wooden spoon and add the milk and the bay leaf. Cook and stir, over medium-high heat, for about 6 minutes. Remove bay leaves and whisk out any lumps. (You HAVE a whisk, right? Come on, man.) Move pan off the heat and add salt, pepper, paprika and dry mustard.
Take a big handful of the Cheddar, the Jack and 1/2 the blue cheese and 1/3 of the Parmigiano, and set aside in a bowl. Take all the cheese that’s left and stir, one handful at a time, into the milk, until all of it is melted. Slowly pour that whole bad boy into the pasta pot, stirring firmly but slowly, until the glorious cheese sauce is mixed in and covering all those noodles.
Melt a couple of remaining tablespoons of butter in a medium-sized saute pan and caramelize the onions and garlic with a little salt. Stir into cheese-pasta mixture.
Wipe the drool off your face and melt 1 stick of butter in that same saute pan. Combine with the breadcrumbs. Toss and stir until butter is evenly incorporated. Set aside.
Take 1/3 of the reserved cheese and sprinkle into the bottom of a buttered 9×13 baking dish. Pour the cheese-pasta awesomeness into the dish, and then sprinkle the remaining reserved cheese on top. If you have any extra Parmigiano, put that on top of the cheese – and then, on top of that, layer your breadcrumbs.
Bake for 20 to 30 minutes. Serve warm with large cloth napkins to be draped over the head so that, in your gluttonous shame, you may hide your face from God.
Believe it or not, this is supposed to only serve 4. Four what, I have no idea.