Please note: Mac and Cheese here does NOT refer to the stuff that comes in a cardboard box with a little packet of orange "cheese" flavoured powder inside.
No judgement - those have saved me plenty of nights when my friends and I partied a bit too hard and had a bit too much to drink.
No, this Mac and Cheese is baked in a casserole. Made with homemade cheese sauce, herbs and spices, and what I like to call a crunchy garlic bread topping. Which is always everyone's favourite part.
I first made this Mac and Cheese for an Earth Hour barbecue that my friends and I had in college.
For those who don't know what Earth Hour is, you should read about it here; but, in essence, we all pledged to turn off all our lights and devices that used electricity for one hour that night to participate in the movement. During that hour, we all head outside to the pool with a charcoal grill and torches, and hung out and ate and had an awesome time. With awesome food right off the grill, of course.
Unfortunately, I have not yet figured out a way to make my Mac and Cheese on the grill. If it wasn't for the crunchy topping I could, but the idea I had just wouldn't have worked outside, so I did it in the oven beforehand.
Start the dish by cooking 4 cups of Macaroni Elbows...
*This is the one recipe you will see me include a roux and not complain bitterly. I have diagnosed myself with RPD - Roux Paranoia Disorder. I really believe that I have some deep-set, unresolved issues with roux. I have never botched one up, but I literally am in a state of panic the entire time I'm working on one because I think I am going to mess up. I couldn't even begin to describe it - but just know, I try to stay away from them for the sake of my mental health.*
But cheese sauce any other way would just not be as good, so I suffer through my RPD attack while making Mac and Cheese because once I sit and taste it, I know it was worth the stress.
That said, start the sauce with a basic roux. Melt 5 tablespoons of butter in a heavy saucepan, and whisk in a quarter (1/4) cup of flour. Cook the mixture, while still whisking, until completely combined and you no longer smell the raw flour. Slowly, VERY slowly, whisk in two (2) and a half (1/2) cups of milk and let cook until it begins to thicken. Once the mixture start to thicken, turn the heat down to low and temper in 2 eggs.
At this point, I add in my spices. My "secret" ingredient in my Mac and Cheese is Spicy Brown Mustard. Many people I've spoken with are shocked at this combination, a little intimidated even. But there are a few that already are privy to this unusual but brilliant (in my opinion) trick. I add a tablespoon of mustard to the mixture, along with a pinch garlic powder and salt and pepper. I use dried herbs as well, most often a teaspoon of parsley along with either a teaspoon of thyme or oregano.
Turn the heat off and begin to add the shredded cheese.. slowly. I always use sharp cheddar and pepperjack cheese because they add very distinct flavours to the dish. 1 cup of each. Of course you are welcome to use whatever kind of cheese you like. Be sure to reserve a half (1/2) cup of the shredded cheese for the topping.
Once the cheeses have melted and the mixture is completely combined, I stir in the cooked pasta and pour into a casserole dish.
Cover and bake the casserole at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. The mixture should be bubbly and gooey.
Now for the topping :)
Melt a half (1/2) cup of butter in a sauce pan, and drop in 4 smashed cloves of garlic (keep them whole so that they're easy to pull out). Cook the garlic cloves in the butter until fragrant, then pull them out and turn off the heat. When the butter cools a bit, add to a cup of breadcrumbs. I actually use panko (japanese breadcrumbs) because they have such a great crunch. toss the panko with the garlic butter and the reserved shredded cheese and use it to top the Mac and Cheese.
Place under the broiler (or if you don't have one, back in the hot oven) until the cheese on top melts and the topping browns.
When it's finished, the topping should be crispy and the casserole itself should be moist. The different textures work well together and make this a great dish for family gatherings, barbeques and entertaining.