Beginner’s Guide to BBQ, Part 5: Mac & Cheese – The Perfect Side Dish
Oh Mac & Cheese, how I love thee! In all honesty, this post might as well be titled: Ode to the best f’ing comfort food in the world! And probably, it should have been, but if you’re a regular, you’ll know we’ve been on a BBQ roll here, people…
If you’re only just joining us, over the last couple of months, we’ve been running a series of posts devoted to BBQ here on the blog. From the very basics over a perfect dry rub recipe to pulled pork and a fiery, zingy North Carolina BBQ sauce… With this post, this fifth installment of the series, it’s time to cover the territory that is BBQ side dishes, by looking at a dish that is not only a favorite BBQ side dish of mine, but also a comfort food classic popular around the world: Mac & Cheese!
With so many possible BBQ side dishes to choose between, why did I choose Mac & Cheese? Well, for starters it’s a personal favorite, not only in terms of BBQ, but generally. Secondly, it is hailed by many as the ultimate comfort food of all time… Yet, at the very same time, it has come to my attention that once you venture outside of mainland America, Mac & Cheese is a dish that you either love to death or simply don’t quite understand.
I can only assume that this is owing to the fact that most people’s experiences with Mac & Cheese have to do with either a horrible albeit popular product coming out of a box or an unbalanced copycat attempt of recreating said product. It’s inconceivable to the average American, but Mac & Cheese is seen by many as a cheap, perhaps comforting, yet humble, simple and at times quite bland concoction. And that’s a crying shame because Mac & Cheese – to all inhabitants of this planet – should be a bite of gooey, cheesy, fatty heaven… And with a little history, a lot of know how and a fine-tuned recipe, together, we can hopefully make that happen!
With this post, I hope to not only make those of you who love Mac & Cheese fall in love all over again, but more importantly to make those of you who never really understood the dish try it out and discover how great it CAN be. Mac & Cheese, you see, IS the ultimate comfort food and what we’re making today is as far from any boxed product as we can go, and as far from your average heavy pile of bland overcooked macaroni in processed cheese sauce as I can take you. So please, join me for a trip into real Mac & Cheese. A trip during which we’re going to build things completely from scratch and even jazz it up a bit!
We’ll add a bit of smoke, a bit of fire and a bit of character to and old classic to make, essentially, the ultimate smoky BBQ Mac & Cheese! A perfect side for BBQ or just about any other hearty meat dish you can think of. Heck, it even makes a pretty good lunch (or hung over breakfast) on it’s own! How’s that for versatility? In short, today I propose to teach you to make Mac & Cheese with complexity and depth of flavor unlike any you’ve ever seen before. And we’re going to do it in some pretty easy steps. Well, you’re going to do it in some pretty easy steps. Now that I’ve gone and done the hard work so you don’t have to…
Had enough of reading? Jump to the recipe by clicking here… Or read on to get the full history and basics of a perfect Mac & Cheese and the answer to all your Mac & Cheese related questions such as “Did Thomas Jefferson really invent Mac & Cheese?
The quest for PERFECT Mac & Cheese: A Food Blogger’s Dilemma
If you’ve been around for any amount of time, you may have realised that I do things differently and thoroughly around here. If this is your first time (Hi! Welcome! Stick around! Let’s be friends!) well, you’re about to find out. Essentially, I do things a little more in-depth and in a few more words than most modern food bloggers… And it took something as relatively simple as Mac & Cheese for me to figure out why that is! Mac & Cheese, for what it’s worth, is probably one of the simplest preparations out there: it’s boiled macaroni, cheese sauce and a breadcrumb topping all married up in a hot oven until bubbly and delicious. Creating a perfect version, honestly, shouldn’t be difficult!
But you know what? In this food blogging world, a lot of people throw around the word perfect too much and too easily. And I’ll admit whole heartedly that I’m probably one such people, but I hopefully do it a little less easily than some people. In fact, when I use the word perfect, I mean perfect in my little world. When I use the word “perfect”, it means I’ve usually done some research using the ancient method of trial and error… Actually, scratch that, it usually means I’ve done a lot of research, in lightly compulsive and neurotic ways to uncover little details, suggestions and tips – that I then put into a few too many words for those few (and by few I mean thousands) of you that care to read about my exploits, findings and research.
It’s not that I always mean for it to get lengthy and in depth. It just sort of happens. Take this current post for example. Ever since I wrote the first entry in the Beginner’s Guide to BBQ series, I knew I wanted to do a recipe for my favorite side dish of all time: Mac & Cheese. I was reasonably sure I knew how I was going to do it as well, which ingredients I’d use, the process and everything. Then I fell into deep, cheesy conversation with another flavor-obsessed, nerdy food blogger – the lovely Malou over at klidmoster.dk (a safe haven for fat-loving Danish speaking foodies) – who not only managed to suggest a few improvements for my “perfect” recipe, but also instill in me a certain amount of doubt about one of the cornerstones of my recipe: my choice of cheese!
And just like that, the perfectionist in me kicked in. I knew I couldn’t just post what I believed to be perfect. Having been questioned – however indirectly – I knew I had to be certain before submitting this post to the scrutiny of the interwebs. So I did what any reasonably insane food blogger would do. I went out and got a couple of different shapes and qualities of pasta, I blew about DKK 300 ($50) on four different kinds of cheese, grabbbed a few beers while I was at it, tore a Friday evening out of the calendar, went home and got to work combining different shades of cheese with different shapes of pasta in what must, quite honestly, have been one of the most elaborate macaroni and cheese-related flavor and texture experiments ever performed outside of a professional kitchen on this side of the Atlantic.
I’ll spare you most of the details of my endeavours that evening, but let’s just say a lot of things were tried out in terms of flavor, texture and noodles, the results of which are incorporated in the recipe below. The end result? A mind-boggling Mac & Cheese matrix, containing six portion-sized servings of Mac & Cheese, showcasing six different combinations of pasta, cheeses, sauciness and topping ratio. There was even a smoking gun involved at some point because some idiot wanted to see if home-smoked cheese would be preferable to a store-bought smoked cheese product…. Not to mention a major tummy ache and subsequent food coma when it became time to figure out just which Macaroni and Cheese reigned supreme.
But such is the way of this blog. I do the experiments so you don’t have to but can be content just reading my findings and giggle at the hardships I go through. And speaking of hardships, let’s finally have a through, but respectful, look at one of my favorite side dishes of all time.
The ultimate American
stoner comfort food
Now, messing so deliberately and thoroughly with a simple, classic recipe is, of course, risky business. For starters, you run the chance of upsetting your audience by messing with their favorite food or preparation. And indeed we weren’t too far into the process before my followers started chiming in:
— Jesse May (@ScurrilousMay) January 15, 2016
This recipe, you see, belongs to a very specific subset of recipes known as comfort foods. Foods that are so rewarding, so filling, so classic and so well know that they become comforting to large a large number of people, in short: comfort food. Comfort foods are dishes that should be treated with respect and not be messed with too much. That’s not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t experiment with them, it’s just to say that we should try to stay true to their roots and standard ways of preparation.
Macaroni and Cheese is a prime example of one such comfort food. It’s so classic, so wide-spread and so popular, actually, that in this day and age, many people around the world get theirs out of a box! And somehow I’m the bad guy for messing around with various types of cheeses and twists? With this post, I’m not so much trying to change up a classic as I am trying show it the attention and respect that it deserves – plus a few minor tweaks and a bit of jazz, of course – and show you that Mac & Cheese can easily be made at home from scratch in relatively little time for the best comfort food experience that you’ve ever had.
And while we might kick it up a notch, I promise you, we will show the original recipe the respect it needs as we usually do around here. Mac & Cheese is, after all, perhaps the world’s most favorite comfort food. This holds especially true in America where the dish is so popular, so classic and so all-American that many even attribute its creation to *the* All-American, original new-world epicurean, third President of those United States, Mr. Declaration of Independence himself: Thomas Jefferson. No, really, I know I kid around a lot, but it really *is* the firm opinion of many that Thomas Jefferson invented Mac & Cheese, and the theory is not entirely as far fetched as you may actually think.
Food Myths: Did Thomas Jefferson really invent Mac & Cheese?
To the best of my knowledge and to that of the internet, the myth that Thomas Jefferson was somehow the inventor of the culinary love child that is Macaroni and Cheese originated some twenty-odd years ago in the 1990’s. No one really knows how and why (though I suspect the new media of those times known as said Internet may have played a role) but somehow the persistent word on the street became that Thomas Jefferson was somehow responsible for not only the Declaration Of Independence but also the great American classic known as Mac & Cheese.
Again, how exactly this theory came about, no-one really know for certain. It is, however known for certain that Thomas Jefferson was a major foodie. He was also known to be particularly fond of Macaroni (a considerably more posh ingredient in his day) and of European cuisine in general, particularly that of France. Considering that Macaroni noodles with cheese was already a widely popular dish in Europe at Jefferson’s time and that Jefferson is well known for having imported macaroni and Parmesan cheese from Marseilles, it is very likely that Macaroni and Cheese was served at dinners at the White House. In fact, semi-official accounts of such incidents occur and while certainly an innovative and strange, foreign sort of meal at the time, apparently not everybody were as fond of the dish as Jefferson himself.
Jefferson’s contribution to American cuisine are legendary and, if anything, Jefferson should probably be credited with introducing and popularizing the dish (and many others, I might add!) in America, but invent it he did not. Rather, it seems that the earliest accounts of a Macaroni and Cheese-like dish date back as early as the 1400’s while the first written modern recipe for Macaroni and Cheese appears to be published by a Mrs Elizabeth Raffald back in 1769 in her book “The Experienced English Housekeeper.” – that’s 30 some years before Jefferson even took office and supposedly invented and served the dish, by the way…
Oddly enough, the 250 year old original recipe, reads a lot like the recipe of modern day America’s favorite comfort food: Cooked noodles tossed in a white sauce laden with sharp cheddar cheese, then topped with Parmesan and baked until golden brown, bubbly and delicious… Effectively making Macaroni and Cheese NOT American in heritage, but British, the very people Jefferson and his brethren rebelled against. Take *that* Mr. Declaration of Independence!
Even more oddly, at the cornerstone of both the original English dish and today’s quintessentially American comfort food lies a cornerstone of French gastronomy.
Mac & Cheese basics – Bechamel: A Mother of a Sauce
You can’t have Mac & Cheese without a cheese sauce. These are the simple facts of life. And speaking of simple, the cheese sauce that lays the foundation of Mac & Cheese is built on a sauce that is not only simple, but so basic that it is actually the most classic of classics of the French kitchen: Bechamel sauce!
Bechamel sauce is not only a fancy French word for a roux-thickened milk sauce. Far from it. More importantly, it’s actually one of the very cornerstones and basics of French cuisine. Bechamel, as simple of a sauce as it is, is a member of the group of five that make up the so-called French Mother Sauces: five basic sauces defined by 20th century culinary mastermind and chef extraordinaire Auguste Escoffier as the base from which all other sauces could be made.
These sauces are widely regarded in the culinary world, not so much for their taste or individual properties, but rather for the fact that they are, indeed, the base on which all other sauces can be built. A Bechamel, for example is nothing but butter and flour whisked into a roux with milk added to create a thickened milk sauce which is then traditionally flavored with onion, bay leaf, cloves, nutmeg, salt and pepper. And famous and posh as it is, a basic Bechamel sauce actually adds very little flavor of its own. Start building on it, though, and that’s when the magic happens.
A perfect example of this would be the case of Mac & Cheese, actually. Here, we take a mother sauce, Bechamel, add an ingredient, cheese, and essentially create a simplified version of another classic (derived) sauce known as Mornay Sauce which we then elaborate on further… Thus proving the concept of mother sauces and their expandability all while clogging up our arteries beautifully in the process. Of course, this being a perfect Mac & Cheese, and we being the experimenting kind, we can’t use just any old cheese for our endeavours.
Cheddar: the perfect cheese for perfect Mac & Cheese!
There are two things this world can never be too full of: pretty women and great cheeses. Thankfully, this world has plenty of both. On the subject of cheese alone, there are countless each unique in flavor, aroma, texture, appearance or all of the above. Of particular interest to our post today is a specific subset of cheese know as melting cheeses, in very non-technical terms, cheeses that respond well to heat by melting into a flavorful, creamy, gooey mess. Yet even within the subset of melting cheeses, our options seem endless: Mozzarella or Provolone from Italy, Oaxaca cheese from Mexico, Gruyere or Raclette from Switzerland, or Cheddar from… Cheddar… In England!
Now, it’s no secret that I’m pretty passionate about things and in my effort to discover the perfect Mac & Cheese formula, I’ve gone through a lot of melting cheeses, and while I’ve discovered all of them to have a wonderful texture, one in particular rose above the rest in not only velvety texture but also taste. Only one had the character and oomph to really rise above the rest and deliver not only texture but also flavor and that particular cheese was – of course – real, sharp, English cheddar!
In particular, I lost my heart to an apple-smoked variety that aside from a creamy texture and sharp bite offered a rounded sweetness and a nice whiff of smoke to the dish. So pro tip, ladies and gentlemen, for a killer Mac & Cheese, hit up your local cheesemonger and ask for some apple-smoked cheddar. If they don’t have it, smoked gouda would be a worthy, yet slightly less full-bodied and flavorful, substitution. If that, too, falls through, go with old orange: the trusted, regular, sharp cheddar cheese. Oh and while you’re there, grab yourself a little bit of Parmesan – the real stuff, Parmigiano-Reggiano – a nice, well-aged variety. It’s a horrible melting cheese, but that’s exactly why we need it. It’s gonna help build an awesome and flavorful crust for our Mac & Cheese.
Now, I know, real Parmigiano-Reggiano is horribly expensive stuff, but it’s also highly flavorful stuff, so go on: live a little, buy a little. In the case of this particular luxury, a little really goes a long way! But more on that later. First, let’s examine another key ingredient of Mac & Cheese, the thing that gave the dish it’s name. Well, half of its name anyway.
On macaroni and other pastas
In the days when Thomas Jefferson more likely than not served Macaroni and Cheese at the White House, macaroni was actually the name of a pasta similar to what we today call spaghetti. In today’s lingo, macaroni usually refers to elbow macaroni, a hollow and bent type of pasta frequently used in making, you guessed it: Mac & Cheese! It goes to reason, then, that the Mac & Cheese served up by Mr. Declaration of Independence was probably quite different from today’s version, at least in appearance. But does the type of pasta used in Mac & Cheese really matter? Well, dear reader, once again, I’ve done the research so you don’t have to! Not only in my experiments of the past weekend, but also on previous occasions.
What my research seems to suggest on this matter is that the form of the pasta used in Mac & Cheese actually matters more than the quality of the pasta. This doesn’t mean – and I’m gonna stress this as the quality conscious food blogger that I am – that you should use any cheap pasta for your Mac & Cheese, you should still get one made from quality flour with a bite and texture that you like, but you can skip the gourmet bronze cast varieties for this particular purpose. What matters in the case of Mac & Cheese is not the clinging ability that bronze cast pasta offers, rather it is total absorption and symbiosis between the pasta and the cheese sauce. And as such, a semi-hollow to hollow variety with nooks and crannies that the sauce can seep into seems absolutely perfect for the job.
This is Rustichella d’Abruzzo, aka the best pasta in the world. You shouldn’t use this for Mac & Cheese. Not for the obvious reason that the package says linguine, but simply because it would be overkill!
Having tried my hands with everything from penne over shell pastas to radiatori and a few things in-between, I’ve come to the strangely anticlimactic conclusion that the elbow macaroni traditionally used for the job is probably the traditional choice for a reason: the diameter and shape of this particular type of pasta seems just made for the job of absorbing and becoming one with cheesed up bechamel sauces.
And while the macaroni in this case is nothing but a transport vehicle for cheese sauce, I do suggest you spend a buck or two on it: An expensive gourmet choice would be a waste, granted, but a mushy, cheap one, on the other hand, would be a shame. My suggestion? Go with a nice middle of the road brand of pasta which offers some resistance and chew through the velvety softness that is the cheese sauce. Oh, and treat it with a bit of respect cook it a minute or two shorter than the package suggests! Lest you want it to turn to complete mush and collapse under the sauce, in which case, your investment would be bit of a waste, really.
Smoked BBQ Mac & Cheese: Spicing things up a bit
Now, with all due respect to my American brothers and sisters, Mac & Cheese is the kind of dish that can easily turn out a little, well, bland if we don’t add something to break the monotony of milk, cheese and flour. Most recipes get around the issue of blandness by adding a bit of dijon mustard or dry mustard power for spice, but I reckon we can do a little better.
This being an attempt to push Mac & Cheese as the perfect side for a BBQ feast, I have experimented with substituting a bit of my perfect dry rub mix for the dry mustard and furthermore adding a splash of apple cider vinegar and a dash of Tabasco for a bit of acidity. Looking back at it now, a healthy splash of my vinegar-based North Carolina BBQ Sauce might have been a worthy substitution… Oh well, some other day. And that’s it for additions, really, I wanted to add spice and character, not to anger more Americans by turning their favorite comfort food into something it’s not.
Oh, and speaking of not changing things up, too much? Any good, authentic Mac & Cheese needs a crust! A crispy, crunchy layer on top of the gooey goodness to provide textural difference and additional flavor. Our perfect Mac & Cheese is no exception! Remember that horribly expensive Parmesan cheese, I asked you to get? We’re going to put it to good use now! Now, a Mac & Cheese is usually topped with a combination of bread crumbs and Parmesan. For the purpose of this perfect version, though I’m going to steal a page from the books of fellow Danish food bloggers: wonderfully geeky Kim Schultz of grillkokkerier.dk and wonderfully loudmouthed, warm-hearted (and also quite geeky) Malou over at klidmoster.dk who both suggested using extra crispy Japanese panko bread crumbs for the job.
But not only that, they suggest frying them in butter first… A brilliantly simple idea that I never really think hurts anybody. So panko and butter for the topping, it is. Only, me being me, I’m of course going to one-up my wonderful colleagues and throw in an equal amount of 30 month-old Parmesan for my topping. Just to push things over the top a little and add some extra spice and crunch. Parmesan, being a hard, crystallised cheese with little water content, you see, doesn’t melt well under high heat, making it a perfectly crunch companion to the panko bread crumbs as our Mac & Cheese bakes. The butter? Well, it just soaks into the dish and makes everything better.
And with the topping in place, we’re about ready to build. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: My candidate for the title of perfect Mac & Cheese!
This recipe calls for dry rub seasoning to be added near the end of cooking. And what better dry rub to use than my very own perfect dry rub recipe?
- 50 grams butter
- 100 grams panko breadcrumbs
- 50 grams freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 30 grams butter
- 30 grams flour
- 500 ml whole milk
- Two cloves of garlic, smashed with a heavy knife blade
- One small onion, peeled and cut in half
- Four cloves
- Two bay leaves
- ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 tablespoon dry rub mix
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon Tabasco
- 250 grams freshly grated apple-smoked cheddar cheese (can substitute smoked gouda or regular sharp cheddar cheese)
- 300 grams quality elbow macaroni noodles
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- In sautée pan, melt butter over medium heat, once melted and lightly brown, add panko bread crumbs and stir to coat.
- Kill heat, then stir in Parmesan cheese and set aside till needed.
- Melt butter in a medium sauce pan over medium heat.
- Cook butter for a few minutes until it’s foamed up and the foaming has subsided.
- Add in the flour and whisk until a smooth roux has formed.
- Cook roux for about five minutes over medium heat (stirring frequently) until roux has turned lightly brown and smells nutty.
- Whisking vigorously, pour in the milk gradually. At first the roux will turn into a paste, keep whisking and adding the rest of the milk gradually until a smooth sauce forms.
- Stud the onion halves with the four cloves and dump the onion halves in the sauce along with the bay leaves and smashed garlic cloves.
- Let the sauce come to a low simmer, stirring regularly to keep the sauce from burning.
- Simmer Bechamel sauce for 30 minutes, stirring regularly, then carefully remove bay leaves, garlic cloves and the onion halves (make sure all cloves are accounted for!).
- Grate about half a teaspoon of nutmeg into the sauce and add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
- Finally, add in the dry rub, Tabasco and apple cider vinegar, stir to combine and leave to simmer.
- Add twenty grams of salt to two liters of water and bring it to a boil in a large pot.
- Once water is boiling, add the elbow macaroni and cook for about one minute less than the package instructions state.
- Add about a fifth of the cheese to the sauce and stir until dissolved by the heat, repeat with another fifth and so onwards until all the cheese is incorporated into the sauce.
- Once elbow macaroni is nicely al dente, drain off the cooking water and pour the cheese sauce over the noodles, stirring thoroughly to combine.
- Add plenty of freshly ground pepper as well as salt if needed.
- Grease an oven-proof caserole dish with a bit of butter and pour the Mac & Cheese mixture into it, top with the panko/parmesan mixture.
- Bake in a 200C oven for about 20 minutes until cheese is bubbly and the crust is golden brown and delicious.
Smoky BBQ Mac & Cheese: The Verdict
So, what makes this Mac & Cheese special? Well, it is first and foremost a spin on a comforting classic. It’s familiar and easily recognisable as the great classic that is Mac & Cheese. But it does sport an extra layer of comfort, if you will. The smoked cheese along with the dry rub and hot sauce make for a deep, spicy and smoky flavor, that lend new complexity to an otherwise easily heavy and one-noted dish.
The vinegar coupled with the peppers in the hot sauce on the other hand act as a bit of a pick-me-up, cutting through the richness of the dish and making it seem somehow not quite as heavy as other Mac & Cheese recipes can be.
The combination of gooey cheesiness and spice coupled with the bite of the vinegar and a hint of sweetness from the rub and fruitiness from the smoked cheddar makes this a surprisingly balanced meal in itself but also the perfect side dish. Not only for your next BBQ feast, but also for other slow cooked dishes. Heck, I’ve even had it with chili to no bad avail.
If you’re to attempt this recipe, bear in mind, though, that this is still pretty heavy stuff! Especially when served alongside flavorful meats. If you’re going with this for your next BBQ meal, consider adding some crisp notes in the form of a heavy on the vinegar coleslaw salad and a perfectly crispy home-made pickle. Also consider adding another shake of your favorite vinegar-based hot sauce or maybe a slathering of my North Carolina BBQ sauce.
If you were a non-fan of Mac & Cheese, I hope I’ve inspired you to give this perfectly acceptable comfort food another chance. If you were already a fan, I hope I’ve shown you another way to prepare your favorite comfort food. If nothing else, I may have taught you a thing or two about Thomas Jefferson and Mother Sauces…
Now tell me… What’s YOUR favorite comfort food? And how do you take it?