Grown-up mac 'n' cheese: Flavor fusions turn childhood's comfort foods into the Mac Daddy

Grown-up mac 'n' cheese: Flavor fusions turn childhood's comfort foods into the Mac Daddy

April 23rd, 2014 by Susan Pierce in Life Entertainment

Buffalo chicken macaroni and cheese, greek salad stuffed tomato macaroni and cheese and macaroni and cheese empanadas, from left, are a few unusual macaroni and cheese dishes.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

REUBEN MAC 'N' CHEESE

1 pound corkscrew pasta or other short cut

2 slices rye bread

3 tablespoons butter plus extra for buttering toast

Handful fresh parsley leaves

1 teaspoon paprika

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 cups milk

1/4 cup spicy brown deli mustard

1 cup shredded Swiss cheese

1 cup shredded Gruyere cheese

1 cup shredded yellow cheddar cheese

3/4 pound good-quality deli corned beef

1 pound sauerkraut, rinsed and drained well

Bring large pot of water to a boil. Salt water and cook pasta to al dente.

While pasta cooks, toast rye bread in toaster then butter hot bread. Coarsely chop bread and place in food processor. Add parsley and paprika to bread and process into bread crumbs; reserve.

Heat a sauce pan over medium heat. Add butter to pot and melt, whisk in flour 1 minute then milk. Season sauce with salt and pepper, thicken sauce 5-6 minutes, stir in mustard. Melt 2/3 of the combined cheeses into the sauce.

Heat broiler.

Drain pasta and return to hot pot. Toss hot pasta with chopped meat and sauerkraut to combine. Stir in cheese sauce and coat.

Transfer mac and cheese to casserole dish coated with nonstick spray and top with bread crumbs and remaining cheese. Brown under broiler 3-4 minutes and serve. Yields 6 servings.

- Rachael Ray

SEAFOOD MAC AND CHEESE

Coarse-ground salt and pepper

1 pound elbow macaroni

6 tablespoons butter

1/2 medium onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

3 cups whole milk

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 pound cooked seafood, coarsely chopped (either lobster, shrimp or crab meat, or any combination of those)

4 cups mixed grated cheeses (such as Parmesan, cheddar, Swiss or fontina)

1/2 cup Panko bread crumbs

1/2 teaspoon Creole seasoning

Heat oven to 400 degrees. In a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook macaroni two minutes less than al dente. Drain, rinse with cold water, set aside.

While pasta is cooking, melt butter over medium heat in large saucepan. Transfer 2 tablespoons melted butter to a medium bowl and reserve. Add onion and garlic to pan; cook until softened, 3-5 minutes. Add flour, cook, stirring 1 minute. Add milk and whisk until smooth. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook 2-3 minutes until sauce has thickened. Season with 3/4 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and nutmeg.

Remove pan from heat. Fold in seafood, macaroni and cheese. Transfer to a shallow 4-quart baking dish.

To bowl with reserved melted butter, add bread crumbs and Creole seasoning; toss and scatter over macaroni mixture.

Place baking dish on rimmed baking sheet. Bake 15-20 minutes until top is golden and sauce bubbles. Let cool 5 minutes before serving. Yields 8 servings.

- Emeril Lagasse

Think comfort food and macaroni and cheese inevitably comes to mind - not that quick-fix, blue-box elbow macaroni, but Mama's homemade meals coated in ooey, gooey, cheesy goodness.

New flavor fusions are transforming the childhood staple into adult entrees that tempt adventurous, mature palates. For example: lobster mac and cheese; Mediterranean Mac, which folds in goat cheese, spinach and olives; and Beer mac and cheese. There's even mac-and cheese grilled-cheese sandwiches for those unafraid of carb overload. Possibilities are limited only by one's imagination.

Jeff Messinger, owner of the Mount Vernon Restaurant, says mac and cheese has been a staple on restaurant menus for 60 years or more, but just in the last six years has he seen it reinvented.

"Mac and cheese is being offered in better cheeses now: Gruyere, Gouda, aged cheeses. Now it has a key spot on the menu instead of being a staple. It's mac and cheese for grown-ups," he says.

Reinvention is the theme of mac and cheese cookoffs held by a group of St. Elmo friends who meet at Joe and Stephanie Clark's home two to three times a year. They compete for top honors in three categories: best all-around, best presentation and most creative ingredient. Winners go home with high-quality microbrew beers purchased by the previous cookoff's winners.

In addition to the Clarks, the core group includes Michael Carrillo, Natalie and Kyle Honkonen, Ashley Lawrence, Drew Hartl, Donald Sayers, Jessie Bailey, Samuel Clark and Anna Kate Gibbs - but up to 15 or so may appear any given night as their friends join the fun.

The group's occupations range from ballroom dancer to teachers, Unum employees and a microbrewer - but they all have one thing in common.

"We are all foodies," says Carillo.

"We love to get together and cook meals for one another, which usually involves theme nights like Taco Night, BBQ Night or pizza parties where everyone brings a pizza topping and Joe and Drew (who are bakers by trade) make the pizza dough," he says. "We joked around about how much we all loved mac and cheese and decided to have a mac-and-cheese feast. We all did slight variations of mac and cheese and, from that point forward, decided to make it a competition."

Stephanie Clark ticks off a long list of her favorite dishes from the variety at each gathering.

"Reuben Mac and Cheese, mac and cheese empañadas, mac and cheese pot pies, beer mac and cheese, mac and cheese pulled-pork nachos, mac and cheese fritters, Wasabi mac and cheese with shrimp, and goat cheese and pesto mac and cheese," she lists.

"Probably the weirdest I've had was fried mac and cheese skewers - and yes, they worked. The sweet-and-spicy dipping sauce really pushed it over the edge," she says.

Carillo says his favorite to date has been Stephanie's Buffalo Chicken Mac and Cheese. One of the most unusual he remembers was mac and cheese spring rolls with cabbage and various dipping sauces.

"Other highlights have been mac and cheese-stuffed jalapenos, mac and cheese fried dumplings with Thai chili glaze, goat-cheese-and-pesto mac and cheese, and mac and cheese pulled-pork nachos," he says.

Clark says she's won best overall twice, but that Ashley Lawrence and Drew Hartl usually "take at least one category, typically the most creative."

"They won for the skewers, mac and cheese pizza, and Greek Mac and Cheese Stuffed Tomatoes. They always have the most creative ideas in the group, although Michael's Mac and Cheese Empañadas and Natalie's Mac and Cheese BBQ Nachos with pork butt she smoked on her Big Green Egg all day were pretty close second places."

Carillo says the friends never officially swap recipes, "but the conversation the entire evening while we eat involves talking about how we made the entries."

The mac meals have been so successful, he says, the friends are toying with the idea of compiling a small cookbook. Until then, Stephanie shares recipes for two of her favorites: Buffalo Chicken Macaroni and Cheese and Rachael Ray's Reuben Mac and Cheese. Carrillo gives the recipe for Mac and Cheese Empanadas.

Buffalo chicken macaroni and cheese

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

BUFFALO CHICKEN MACARONI AND CHEESE

1 pound elbow macaroni

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1 cup Panko bread crumbs

1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese

2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves, chopped

3 cups shredded rotisserie chicken

2 cloves garlic, minced

3/4 cup hot sauce, divided

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons dry mustard

2 cups milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 pound sharp cheddar cheese, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 3 1/2 cups)

8 ounces pepper jack cheese, shredded (2 cups)

2/3 cup sour cream

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a 3-quart baking dish or coat with nonstick spray.

In large pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta until al dente (about 7 minutes); drain well.

In large bowl, combine 2 tablespoons melted butter, Panko crumbs, blue cheese and parsley; set aside.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the chicken and garlic and cook until fragrant (about 2 minutes.) Stir in 1/2 cup hot sauce, simmer until slightly thickened (about 1 minute). Transfer to a plate.

Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in the saucepan. Stir in the flour and mustard with a wooden spoon until smooth (about 1 minute). Gradually whisk in both the milk and cream, adding the remaining 1/4 cup hot sauce. Cook, whisking constantly, until the sauce has begun to thicken (about 2 minutes).

Whisk in the cheddar and pepper jack cheeses until smooth (2-3 minutes). Whisk in the sour cream until smooth.

Spread half the macaroni in the prepared baking dish. Top with the chicken mixture. Top chicken with remaining macaroni. Pour cheese sauce evenly over the macaroni. Sprinkle bread crumb topping evenly over top.

Place in oven and bake 35-40 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool 10 minutes before serving. Yields 12 servings.

- Stephanie Clark

Mac 'n' cheese empañadas

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

MAC AND CHEESE EMPANADAS

1 medium box elbow macaroni

2-3 links chorizo sausage

1 stick butter

1/2 cup diced onion

2 diced garlic cloves

2 tablespoon flour

3 cups milk

2 cups Havarti cheese

2-3 packages of rolled out pie crust (depending upon how many empañadas are needed)

2-3 eggs

Boil box of elbow macaroni per cooking instructions and set aside.

Cook 2-3 links of chorizo sausage per cooking instructions being sure to crumble up the sausage during the process, set aside.

Heat a large pot or sauce pan over medium heat. Add 1 stick of butter to pot. Once melted, add ½ cup diced onion. Be careful not to burn/brown the butter. Once onions are translucent, add 2 diced cloves of garlic and two tablespoons of flour. Stir constantly for 2 minutes to brown the flour without burning it. Add 3 cups of milk slowly to deglaze the pan. Add 2 cups of havarti cheese and stir to bring the cheese sauce together.

Once the cheese is melted, add the cooked chorizo, noodles and salt and pepper to taste. Set mac and cheese aside to cool slightly.

Take pie crusts and cut into 6-8 inch-diameter circles depending upon desired size of the empanadas. Beat 1-2 eggs and set aside. Spoon portions of mac and cheese into the center of the pie crusts. Brush egg on to one edge of the pie crust. Fold over the pie crust to form a half-moon shape and crimp together edges with a fork to seal.

Transfer the empanadas onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Cut two small slits in the top of the empanadas to ensure they do not burst while baking. Brush the tops of the empañadas with egg. Bake in the oven for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown.

- Michael Carrillo

Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.