Mac and Cheese: True Confessions
I have recently had to admit to myself that my relationship to mac and cheese is more complicated that I let on. On one hand, I am in love with the idea of it, the sense that it is comfort-in-a-pan. But, if I am really being honest, the reality of it is often kind of disappointing.
Recently, I started trying to isolate the problem. Or, rather, the problems. Plural.
Here is what I came up with:
1. Too dry. Homemade is always better, right? And in the case of mac and cheese, homemade is always baked, right? Why, then, was I fantasizing in the depths of my secret heart about the loose squidginess of Kraft Dinner?
2. Too oily/heavy. This often happens with comfort foods. We want them to be indulgent, but sometimes they tip over into being kind of gross. I often feel like I have eaten a brick coated in butter after eating mac and cheese.
3. Not really a complete meal in and of itself, but so time consuming to make (see below) that you don't have the time or energy to make a protein or veg to serve on the side.
4. Too labour-intensive and time consuming. Mac and cheese is the culmination of a many steps, though each one is pretty simple. Boil pasta in one pot. Make a white sauce in another. Season said white sauce. (If you are me) roast and puree veggies on a sheet pan to blend into sauce. Mix in cheese which you have previously grated. Combine pasta and sauce together. Pour into a buttered pan. Sprinkle over more cheese and buttered breadcrumbs. Repeat with all the multiple pans your have chosen to make for your freezer. Bake for half an hour. By now your hungry children are clawing at your legs and your counters and sink are cluttered up with a thousand dirty dishes. You regret everything.
5. Too bland. Adding enough seasoning helps, but most versions lack enough serious heat or acid to cut through all that richness.
Contemplating these issues led me to the following insights:
1. Don't be trying to batch cook this. I always assume that when something is time consuming to make, I should be making a whole heap of it for the freezer. But you know what? I find that this is one of those dishes which is actually much faster and more manageable to make if I am just making enough for that meal.
2. Rather than trying to roast and then puree veggies in order to make the sauce "healthy" (ha!), use canned pumpkin. This saves me that one oily sheet pan that often pushes me over into dirty dish despair. Also, it reduces the amount of oil in the finished product slightly.
3. Cook any add-ins, make the sauce, and bake it all in one vessel! I use a 12 inch cast-iron skillet, but any oven-safe pan of appropriate size will work.
4. Either don't bake it, or bake it just enough to melt and brown the topping.
5. Marinade your protein (or any other add-ins you want), and then cook it right in their marinade rather than plain olive oil. This allows you to dump straight from the marinade bag or container into the pan, and also lends extra flavour and acid to the mix.
So, now that we have all of this out of the way, here is my current favorite take on this classic. It is creamy without being super heavy, crusty without being dry, and turned into a complete meal through the presence of marinated chicken chunks and pumpkin. Best of all, it can be ready in about 30 minutes and produces a minimum of dishes. I would serve this with a simple green salad or raw veggies.
Pumpkin Mac and Cheese with Chicken and Goat Cheese:
For the Pasta:
400 grams short pasta of your choice
For the Chicken:
1 large or two small chicken breasts, cubed and marinated overnight in a marinade of your choosing. I did:
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbs white wine vinegar
1 tbs sugar
1 tsp salt
1 clove garlic, minced or grated
1/2 tsp dried oregeno
For the Sauce:
2 tbs all purpose flour
2 tbs butter
1 cup of milk
1 cup of grated white cheddar
1/4 cup chevre (soft goat cheese) OR cream cheese (Optional)
1 cup canned pumpkin
1/2 tsp each salt, smoked paprika, and dry mustard
For the Topping:
1 tbs butter, melted
1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
As much grated cheese to top as you desire. I like something in the 1/2-3/4 cup range, but feel free to go wild.
1. Get yourself all set up. Get you pasta water boiling. Get your chicken cubes out of the fridge. Grate your cheddar. Measure out all of the ingredients for your sauce and have them close at hand. Preheat oven to 400 degrees (unless you don't want to bake your dish. See step 6 for details).
2. Saute your chicken cubes in their marinade in a 10-12 inch skillet or oven-proof frying pan until they are just cooked through and starting to brown. Remove these to a small bowl and set aside.
3. Make your roux, which is the basis of your sauce. Start by adding your butter to the pan and allowing to melt. Note: If there is a lot of residual oil in your pan, you can reduce the amount of butter slightly. Sprinkle over flour and whisk to form a loose paste. Cook this paste over medium-low, whisking constantly, for about 2 minutes, or until it is starting to brown and smell like shortbread.
4. Very slowly add your milk, whisking as you go so the sauce is smooth and there are a minimum of lumps. Cook this, whisking constantly, over medium-low heat until it has thickened up. Whisk in your salt, pepper, paprika, and mustard. Turn off the heat and add your goat or cream cheese (if desired) and pumpkin and whisk until smooth. Add your cheddar, and stir until it is fully melted and combined. The sauce should be creamy and thick but not gloppy. Thin with a splash of milk if necessary. Add the chicken back to the pan and mix.
5. Meanwhile, cook your pasta in well-salted boiling water until al dente. Stir this directly into the sauce in its skillet, mixing carefully. Don't worry if a little pasta water is still clinging to the noodles and gets into your sauce--this is a good thing!
6. You can totally dig in at this stage if what you want is a bowl of soft, cheesy, noodles. If you want a crisper top and edges, go ahead and microwave 1 tbs of butter. Mix in 1/4 cup of panko bread crumbs and sprinkle this over your pan. Next, sprinkle over your last dose of grated cheddar. Bake for just 10 minutes, until cheese is melted and bread crumbs are brown but the pasta is still pretty loose. If this is taking too long for you and your hungry hoard, you can also just blitz it under the broiler for a couple of minutes, but don't walk away and let the bread crumbs catch fire. I'm looking at you!
And that is it. Your family and/or friends are happy, and hopefully you haven't even broken a sweat. The only dishes you can't pop in the dish washer are one skillet, one pot, and one knife (please don't be one of those people who puts their knives in the dishwasher).
1. Any whisk will work, but I like to use flat whisk for this. It really makes short work of all those pesky lumps in the sauce.
2. Obviously if you would like this to be vegetarian, or if you would like it to be even faster, omit the chicken. You could also add some diced or shredded left over chicken if you have any kicking around your fridge. That would be brilliant.
3. I know, I know. You are annoyed with me because you have been stuck with half a can of leftover pumpkin. Sorry. You should take this as a sign that you should be making pumpkin muffins or pancakes this weekend. Or, you can put it in a small Ziploc bag, flatten it out, and freeze it for later. Problem solved.