The blinders have been lifted from eyes, y'all! I am HEALED! It's a frigging post-Rapture miracle! (Clearly, my atheist views have me Left Behind. Well...yay! More cheese for me.) Anyway...I have forever been...challenged, in the area of making Smack Your Mama Good Mac and Cheese. And I am no more...praise Cheeses!
For literally years I've sought the mac and cheese holy grail, and come up with a myriad of results. Some sort of tasty and serviceable, others frighteningly oily, or oddly gritty, or just...not what I wanted. Because I have a very firm idea of what the perfect mac and cheese is, and it has been eluding me all this time. No matter what types of cheese I tried, fat free or whole fat milk, warmer or cooler cooking temperatures, they all fell flat. In my mind's eye, it was unctuously creamy and thick, an even sauce, noodles with just the right amount of toothesomeness (we're going to go with that being a word, ok?) and of course, a high ratio of crusty topping. Bubbling, golden, dairy-laced heaven.
Cue heavenly chorus, kids, because in March of this year, Bon Appetit's latest issue came in my mailbox. One look at the front cover, and I started to feel illicitly hopeful. For there was a mighty fine looking mac and cheese on the cover, and my faith in my own abilities was flagging. I'm no food porn newbie, though...I'm not easily lured in by just a sexy picture with strings of melted cheese. Well, yes, I am, but whatever. So I scanned the ingredient list, hit the grocery store (what the HELL are Peppadew peppers? Oh well...roasted red peppers would have to do.), and set to.
Now, I'm no novice in making white sauces and baked pastas...I can make a basic bechamel with the best of them. So I was blithely following along with the recipe, and waiting for it to inevitably say..."melt 1/2 cup butter, stir in 1/2 cup flour...add 4 cups milk". And it NEVER SAID THAT. Anywhere. And on closer examination, there was no milk to be found in the whole recipe. WTF? What kind of wonky mac and cheese was this? Sure, it was labelled Pimiento Mac and Cheese, so I expected some tweaks, but no milk? Was this a misprint? Did I need to pen an irate letter? (I come from a long line of irate letter writers...this would not be a problem.) "Bugger it", I thought, and decided to just carry on. Worst case scenario, I could make peanut butter toast.
There was more weirdness yet to come...dumping a bunch of peppers and cheese in a blender? And that was the sauce? Oh well. I bunged the neon orange mess into the oven (that many red peppers yield a shade of orange more commonly found on Sesame Street characters) and waited. And what came out was....heaven. Some magic happened in that blender that yielded the sauce I'd been lusting after all these years. Texture? Spot on. Flavor? Complexity with the peppers, yet familiar and soothing with the cheese. Crunch topping? You bet your butter-rubbed Panko bread crumbs!
And since I'm sure there are others out there who have stared forlornly at a casserole of disappointing mac and cheese, I happily share this discovery, and urge you to make it pronto!
Pimiento Mac and Cheese
(adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2011)
1 red pepper, seeded and cut into 1" chunks
1 garlic clove, peeled
1/2 cup Panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
3 tbsp unsalted butter at room temp, divided
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
3/4 cup drained Peppadew peppers in brine (I have no clue what those are...I used most of a jar of roasted red peppers and their brine)
1/4 tsp chile powder
1 1/4 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup grated mozzarella
8 ounces medium shell pasta
- Bring 1/2 cup water, bell pepper, and garlic clove to boil in saucepan. Cover; reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer until pepper is soft, about 15 minutes.
- Toast panko in skillet over medium-high heat until golden, stirring often, about 5 minutes.
- Transfer crumbs to a bowl, and let cool to lukewarm. Rub 1 tbsp butter into crumbs to coat. Mix in 1/4 cup of Parmesan.
- Transfer bell pepper mixture to blender. Add jarred peppers and 1 tbsp of their brine, 2 tbsp of butter and chile powder. Add cheddar and 1/4 cup Parmesan. Blend until sauce is smooth, season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Butter 8-cup baking dish.
- Cook pasta in boiling salted water until al dente (8 minutes or so, depending on size and shape of pasta). Drain.
- Pour drained pasta into prepared baking dish. Add mozzarella, and pour sauce over whole mess. Stir until well combined. Admire astonishing color.
- Top with buttered bread crumbs.
- Bake until pasta is bubbling like a bright orange volcano and the bread crumbs are golden, about 25 minutes.
- Set it on the counter and let it cool about 15 minutes. (You'll regret skipping this step. Burning all the skin off the roof of your mouth with melted cheese is No Fun.)
I can die happy now. Although since I missed the Rapture, I guess I'll have to stick around a bit longer.