A couple of my coworkers and I came up with a brilliant idea a couple of weeks ago. I’m not entirely sure how we got on the topic of macaroni and cheese, but we decided that, since it’s so versatile and so well-loved, it might be fun to have a macaroni and cheese contest in the office.
Because I’m a little obsessive, I decided to dedicate an entire Saturday to testing out three different mac and cheese recipes. I think it’s safe to say that Colin appreciated this display of insanity … even if it meant that the two of us passed out in cheese-and-bechamel induced comas on the couch by 10:30. Adulthood!
Everyone has different tips and suggestions for how to make the best mac and cheese. Bacon! Bread crumbs! Hot dogs! Multiple cheeses! Bake it! Easy-Mac!
Wait, not that last one.
I found three different recipes I wanted to try, made a few tweaks and, for testing purposes, cut them down a bit. I really did not need a metric crapton of macaroni and cheese hanging out in my fridge. One was a riff on Contessa’s lobster mac and cheese (sans lobster, because HONESTLY.), one was a beer-cheddar stovetop mac and cheese, and the third was some smoked gouda goodness.
1 box macaroni of your choice – I always go with a cavatappi or cellentani, though other favorites include mini shells or elbows. Cook the macaroni a few minutes short of the box’s suggested cooking time for al dente – you don’t want your macaroni to get soggy while soaking up the bechamel goodness.
For the gruyere-cheddar and smoked gouda:
4 slices cooked bacon
1 cup panko bread crumbs
1-2 tbsp butter
1/2 cup whole milk and 1/2 cup heavy cream, combined
4 tbsp unsalted butter
4 tbsp flour
For the gruyere-cheddar mac and cheese (Adapted from The Barefoot Contessa, serves 2)
1 cup grated gruyere
1/2 cup grated cheddar
pinch black pepper
pinch grated nutmeg
For the smoked gouda mac and cheese (Adapted from Emeril Lagasse, serves 2)
1 1/2 cups grated smoked gouda
1/2 tsp sauce from can of chipotle chilis en adobo
pinch black pepper
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
In a small, heavy saucepan, melt your four tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, whisking constantly, for two minutes. Slowly add your milk/cream mixture, whisking constantly, for about eight minutes. Remove the white sauce from the heat, and pour into two separate bowls.
In one bowl, stir in your gruyere and cheddar cheeses, mixing until mostly melted in, then stir a pinch of black pepper and nutmeg. In the second bowl, stir in your smoked gouda, mixing until mostly melted in, then stir in a pinch of black pepper. Add 1/3 of the cooked macaroni to each bowl and combine, making sure the noodles are nice and coated. Split the macaroni evenly into four small, ovenproof crocks or bowls – two bowls of gruyere-cheddar, two bowls of smoked gouda. Place them on a cookie sheet and set aside.
Place a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and cook your four slices of bacon. Set aside, pat dry and allow to cool slightly before crumbling into tiny pieces. (Resist the urge to eat it all/share it with your dog. This is mostly a note-to-self.) Add your panko bread crumbs to the skillet and heat them up in the rendered bacon fat until they turn golden. If there isn’t enough bacon fat (guh), add another tablespoon of butter. Stir in your bacon, then sprinkle half of the bread crumbs over your gruyere-cheddar bowls. Next, add your chipotle chili en adobo sauce to the remainder of the panko-bacon mix and cook for another minute or so, then sprinkle those bread crumbs over the smoked gouda bowls.
Place the baking sheet in the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes.
Cheddar-beer stovetop mac and cheese (Adapted from Parade, serves 2)
1/4 cup plus 1 tbsp sour cream
1/3 cup pale ale or gold lager (pale ale or IPA if you want a stronger beer taste, gold lager if you want it to be more mild. I went with Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Dortmunder Gold. Might be my new favorite beer, by the way.)
1/2 tbsp corn starch
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp flour
1/2-3/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese (buy a block of it and grate it yourself. Don’t buy the bag of the pre-shredded stuff. Good for tacos, not for mac and cheese.)
pinch black pepper
pinch smoked paprika
pinch cayenne pepper
Easily the quickest method with the easiest cleanup. In a small bowl, stir together your sour cream, beer and corn starch until well-blended, then set aside. Next, melt the butter in a medium-sized pot over medium heat. Sprinkle with flour and whisk until well combined. Add the beer mixture and bring to a mild simmer – do not boil. Add the cheese in batches, stirring until well combined between additions. Once you’re finished adding in the cheese, add your macaroni (1/3 of your box’s cooked pasta) to the sauce and simmer until sauce thickens and the noodles are cooked through, about five minutes. Stir in black pepper, smoked paprika, cayenne and salt.