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Macaroni and cheese for grown-ups

Macaroni and cheese for grown-ups

Leave the blue box behind with these flavorful, inventive toppings

February 13th, 2018 by St. Louis Post-Dispatch in Features

From left: Wild Mushroom Macaroni and Cheese, Macaroni and Cheese with a Five-Spice Beef Topping, Macaroni and Cheese with Buffalo Chicken Topping and Macaroni and Cheese with a Barbecued Brisket Topping. (Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

When it comes to macaroni and cheese, it's time to think outside the box.

You know the box we mean. It's bright, shiny blue. And the macaroni and cheese that comes out of it is bright, shiny orange.

The boxed stuff is fine for kids. It's fast and cheap, and they can't tell the difference. But for adults, it's time to do something better. It's time for homemade macaroni and cheese.

Gallery: Macaroni and cheese for grown-ups

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Making macaroni and cheese at home is nothing new—Italians have been doing it since at least the early 1300s, when a recipe for it was included in one of the first medieval cookbooks, "Liber de Coquina."

But pairing it with other inventive ingredients—that's what's new. That's thinking outside the box.

I decided to make several different toppings to go with macaroni and cheese, but first I had a conundrum: How should I make the macaroni and cheese?

There is the American version, which begins by making a roux—cooking flour and butter together, and using it to thicken and flavor milk. And then there is the Italian version, which begins by soaking shredded cheese in milk until it starts to break down.

The American version is a bit thicker and richer. The Italian version is creamier. They were both so great that I decided to use them both as the base. It's the toppings that matter, anyway.

Because it takes the longest to cook, I first made a barbecued brisket, which I chopped and put on top of the macaroni and cheese. A local food truck serves it this way, and I saw one that looked so good I decided to write an entire story about toppings for macaroni and cheese.

I made the brisket in a slow cooker, which was easy, and the primary flavoring was a bottle of barbecue sauce, which made it easier. All I had to add were some onions, a touch of brown sugar and a handful of spices.

The beef had just a hint of a kick to it, because of the barbecue sauce, which makes it the perfect foil for a smooth and creamy macaroni and cheese.

And that was the thinking behind my second topping, too. Few foods go as well with a rich creaminess as Buffalo chicken. So I made a Buffalo sauce (it's basically Frank's RedHot sauce and butter, plus some vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper and garlic powder) and tossed it with some shredded chicken.

The combination of chicken, sauce and macaroni and cheese was bliss on a plate. And only later did I think of a way to make it even more blissful—by replacing some of the fontina cheese in the macaroni and cheese with blue cheese.

That would be almost more bliss than a fellow could stand.

And speaking of a surfeit of blissfulness, I decided to make a five-spice beef stew and use that with macaroni and cheese, too.

Five-spice powder is a Chinese staple mixing ground Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, ground cloves, cinnamon and fennel seeds. You could make it yourself, but it is easier just to use the mixture from a jar.

I used mine to make a very simple stew consisting merely of beef, broth, onions, garlic and crushed tomatoes, with a liberal dose of the five-spice powder. I wanted the spices to be the most prevalent flavor, guessing that they would be an especially effective counterpoint to the cheese and macaroni.

I was right. And I also liked the way the mixture brought an Asian echo to a quintessentially American and Italian dish.

My last dish of macaroni and cheese was unlike the others. It did combine macaroni with cheese, but it was less creamy than the others because it had no milk (though it did have a bit of cream).

Nothing goes better with cream than mushrooms; entire civilizations could have been built on that combination. This dish first roasts a pound of mushrooms and then mixes them in a pan of macaroni and cheese, including ricotta cheese.

Then it is all baked together. You can smell the mushrooms even as you take it out of the oven. Then, when you taste it, it's even more impressive. It is macaroni and cheese outside the box and taken to another level.

 

MACARONI AND CHEESE, AMERICAN VERSION

Yield: 4 servings

2 tablespoons butter, plus more for pan

4 tablespoons bread crumbs

2 cups milk

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups grated fontina

2 1/2 cups grated cheddar

1/2 cup grated parmesan

2 sage leaves

1/2 pound elbow macaroni

 

Note: If not using with a topping, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add 2/3 cup bread crumbs and stir until they are crisp and toasted, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. When cool, stir in 1/2 cup grated parmesan. Sprinkle on top of the filled baking dish at the end of step No. 2.

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Butter the bottom and sides of a baking dish no bigger than 9-by-13 inches. Add bread crumbs and tilt the pan until the bottom and sides are lightly covered. Discard the remaining bread crumbs.

2. Heat milk until hot, but not simmering. Meanwhile, melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add flour and stir for 1 minute. Slowly add hot milk, stirring or whisking constantly until smooth and starting to thicken. Add fontina, cheddar and parmesan cheeses, along with sage leaves, and stir until the cheese is thoroughly melted and blended.

3. Cook macaroni until it is very al dente, about 3 minutes less than the recommended time on the package. Drain and return to pot. Stir in cheese mixture until thoroughly mixed. Pour into prepared baking dish and bake until browned and bubbly, about 20 minutes.

Per serving: 899 calories; 50 g fat; 31 g saturated fat; 157 mg cholesterol; 46 g protein; 64 g carbohydrate; 9 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 1,020 mg sodium; 1,009 mg calcium

 

MACARONI AND CHEESE, ITALIAN VERSION

Yield: 4 servings

1 1/2 cups grated fontina cheese

2 1/2 cups grated cheddar

2 cups whole milk

Butter, for the baking dish

4 tablespoons bread crumbs

1/2 cup grated Grana Padano or parmesan

2 large sage leaves

1/2 pound elbow macaroni

 

Note: If not using with a topping, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add 2/3 cup bread crumbs and stir until they are crisp and toasted, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. When cool, stir in 1/2 cup grated parmesan. Sprinkle on top of the filled baking dish just before baking in step No. 4.

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil for macaroni. In a large bowl, combine fontina and cheddar. Pour milk over the cheese and let this mixture sit for 30 minutes to 1 hour, until the cheese begins to break down and dissolve into the milk.

2. Butter the bottom and sides of a baking dish no bigger than 9-by-13 inches. Add bread crumbs and tilt to lightly coat all sides; discard any leftover bread crumbs.

3. Pour cheese and milk into a pot and add the sage leaves. Whisk over medium-low heat until the cheese melts, about 7 or 8 minutes. Stir in Grana Padano or parmesan cheese. Meanwhile, add macaroni to boiling water. Cook until very al dente, about 3 or 4 minutes shy of the time listed on the package, and drain.

4. Return macaroni to pot. Add cheese sauce and stir until all the pasta is coated with the sauce. Scrape pasta into prepared baking dish. Bake until browned and bubbly, about 20 minutes.

Per serving: 785 calories; 41 g fat; 25 g saturated fat; 130 mg cholesterol; 42 g protein; 61 g carbohydrate; 8 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 931 mg sodium; 902 mg calcium

Adapted from a recipe by Lidia Bastianich in lidiasitaly.com.

 

BARBECUED BRISKET TOPPING

Yield: 6 servings

2 pounds beef brisket

1 cup barbecue sauce, your favorite

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 quantity macaroni and cheese, made from 1/2 pound macaroni, preferably homemade, hot

 

Trim large pieces of fat from the brisket. Place brisket in a slow cooker with barbecue sauce, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, mustard and salt. Stir to combine, and flip meat over to get sauce on both sides. Cook on low heat until it is almost fall-apart tender, 5 to 6 hours. Taste and add salt if needed. Slice meat against the grain and then chop into small pieces. Put chopped meat back in sauce and serve over macaroni and cheese.

Per serving: 909 calories; 44 g fat; 24 g saturated fat; 202 mg cholesterol; 62 g protein; 62 g carbohydrate; 22 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 1,385 mg sodium; 698 mg calcium

*Using the Macaroni and Cheese, American Version recipe Barbecued brisket recipe adapted from the Spruce

 

BUFFALO CHICKEN TOPPING

Yield: 4 servings

2 medium chicken breasts, boneless and skinless

2/3 cup Frank's RedHot sauce

1 stick (1/2 cup) cold butter

1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar

1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

1 quantity macaroni and cheese, made from 1/2 pound macaroni, preferably homemade, hot

 

1. Cook chicken breasts in your favorite way, without adding extra flavor (I braise mine in a little water, covered, over medium-high heat for about 30 minutes). Remove skin and bones, if any, and shred meat with two forks or your fingers.

2. Combine hot sauce, butter, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper and garlic powder in a small pot and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, just until bubbles start forming around the edges. Remove from heat, whisk sauce, and add shredded chicken. If necessary, reheat sauce and chicken. Serve over macaroni and cheese.

Per serving: 1,175 calories; 75 g fat; 46 g saturated fat; 260 mg cholesterol; 60 g protein; 64 g carbohydrate; 9 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 1,373 mg sodium; 1,023 mg calcium

*Using the Macaroni and Cheese, American Version recipe Buffalo sauce recipe from allrecipes.com

 

FIVE-SPICE BEEF TOPPING

Yield: 4 servings

1 pound beef stew meat, cut into 1 1/2-inch to 2-inch pieces

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

1 1/2 cups beef broth, divided

1 onion, sliced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 tablespoon five-spice powder, see note

1/2 (15-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

1/2 tablespoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon cold water

1 quantity macaroni and cheese, made from 1/2 pound dry macaroni, preferably homemade, hot

 

Note: Five-spice powder can be found with the spices or in the Asian aisle of many grocery stores

1. Season meat with salt and pepper. Place 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Brown several pieces of meat at a time on all sides; do not crowd the pot. When each batch is done, remove it to a plate with a slotted spoon.

2. Deglaze the pot with 1/2 cup of the broth, scraping up any brown bits that may be stuck to the bottom. Pour this cooked broth into a small bowl. Add the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of the oil to the pot and saute the onion slices until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the crushed garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds.

3. Stir in the remaining 1 cup broth, the reserved deglazed broth, the five-spice powder and the crushed tomatoes. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer until meat is tender, about 11/2 hours.

4. Mix together the cornstarch and water and pour into the stew. Bring to a boil, stirring, and cook until thickened. Remove garlic cloves, test sauce for seasoning and add salt if necessary. Serve over hot macaroni and cheese. Do not use all of the liquid if there is too much for your taste.

Per serving: 1,223 calories; 74 g fat; 39 g saturated fat; 233 mg cholesterol; 67 g protein; 70 g carbohydrate; 11 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 1,608 mg sodium; 1,050 mg calcium

*Using the Macaroni and Cheese, American Version recipe

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