I’m not really sure if this should be my first Mac’n’cheese post. Mac’n’cheese is something that I love. I love to cook it and love to eat it. Even a basic mac’n’cheese made properly is ace, but there are levels to this, and it can quickly be elevated to something even more special.
Leftover BBQ meat in your mac’n’cheese is a special delight. Likewise chorizo mac’n’cheese, where you cook the chorizo first so the oil from the chorizo weeps out into the butter that makes up the cheese sauce, leaving you with a decadently rich, orange-tinged sauce, is something to truly be savoured.
This variety was a simple one, but I figured I will use this as an opportunity to go through the basics of mac’n’cheese.
1. The basics: Cheese sauce
In its simplest form, mac’n’cheese is just cooked macaroni pasta mixed with a simple cheese sauce. If you do this right, and use decent cheese then you will have a fine meal on your hands in 10 minutes. I quite often opt to then further bake my mac’n’cheese topped with more cheese, but it takes longer.
If you know how to make a cheese sauce then you can just skip this part, but if you haven’t done it before we will go into some of the details (probably in far too boring a detail, but still, thats what I’m here for).
1.1 How to make a roux
First step is to make a roux - this is just a fancy way of saying a mixture of butter and flour. For this we want to melt the butter in a saucepan, I have always found this easier in a light coloured pan (not one with a darker non-stick coating, for example) so we can see the colour of the butter as it melts. During this stage our goal isn’t just to turn it to liquid form, we want to cook off some of the water content. Whilst we melt it, the butter will start to bubble (this is the water evaporating), we want to keep heating it until the bubbling has died down a lot. It’s important at this stage to keep stirring the butter as it can easily start to brown. Browned butter is a delicious thing in itself - something you may have cooked with - the milk solids start to brown (you will see brown flecks in the melted butter) the smell and taste will turn a more nutty savoury flavour, but that’s not what we’re after this time.
As soon as the bubbling has died down, we will take off the heat and add the flour and mix through thoroughly. This should form a white-ish-golden-ish paste. It’s then a good idea to return to the heat to cook for another minute or so to cook off some of the flour flavour. Again, keeping an eye on it and stirring throughout.
1.2 How to make a béchamel sauce (white sauce)
The next step is to transform our roux into a béchamel sauce. Béchamel sauce and white sauce are both the same thing, basically a sauce made with butter, flour and milk. When I make my cheese sauce I always do it by eye rather than weighing the ingredients, so at this point sometimes my roux is quite a thick paste and sometimes it is still quite runny, either way, it doesn’t seem to matter (we can adjust the milk or cheese quantities later if its not the consistency we want).
All we need to do is gradually whisk in the milk. Keeping the pan over the heat we slowly add the milk and whisk it in until combined. I always add the milk quite slowly, a generous splash at a time, and always whisking and combining before adding the next splash of milk. The important thing here is to not just get lazy and pour in all the milk at once.
1.3 How to make a cheese sauce
The final step is to transform our béchamel sauce into a cheese sauce - once all the milk has been added and whisked, and is heated to a decent simmer, we simply take the sauce off the heat and add the cheese. Stir the grated cheese through and the residual heat (thermal mass! it gets everywhere when we think about it) of the sauce will gently melt the cheese and it will all come together.
The important part here to get a great mac’n’cheese is the cheese you use. I always prefer an extra mature (sharp) cheddar - they don’t ordinarily melt as well as younger cheddar, but it will melt just fine in the sauce, and using a stronger cheese will make all the difference in the cheese sauce.
2. Mac’n’cheese extras
This particular creation was an attempt to recreate pepperoni pizza on mac’n’cheese. I used some good quality chorizo (it should have been pepperoni, for obvious reasons, but I didn’t have any to hand, and good quality chorizo provides similar qualities) and also topped it with Pizza Wings rub from SubWolfer (see my review here) which brings a pizza sauce flavour profile with dried tomato powder and Italian herbs. Really though, the idea was just a novelty idea - adding additional chorizo to the mac’n’cheese as well as additional flavours to the crust.
There are loads more great combinations possible though..
Baked with a crumb/crust - For sure my favourite approach for finishing the dish. I pretty much always opt to further bake the mac’n’cheese, and I always like to top it with something to form the crust. The high street sandwich chain EAT used to do an amazing jalapeño breadcrumb topping options. Bread crumbs, BBQ rub, dried herbs and more cheese (mozzarella a good option) all work well. Bake for 20 - 40 mins until the crust is browned/melted.
Cheese sauce boosters - there are a couple things you can throw in to the sauce to boost the flavour. Good options inclide: a teaspoon of wholegrain mustard, half teaspoon onion powder (if you want a more cheese and onion crisp thing going on), a teaspoon of miso paste (if you think you need a further savoury boost!)
Mix-up your cheese - Play with different cheeses, they will have different properties (melting points, amount of liquid) so worth experimenting. Throwing in a small amount of blue cheese goes a long way to add more punch to the dish (even if you don’t like blue cheese much, the rest of the sauce will take the edge of it a little). Mozzarella makes for a fun addition to get that string-y pull apart effect, but you only need barely a handful before it starts getting silly, so don’t go overboard - you want it to pull, but not just to make it ridiculous.
BBQ/leftover meat - One of the greatest, but simplest additions. Once the sauce is cooked and mixed with the pasta just throw in a couple handfuls (as much as you like really) of leftover meat. Shredded meats like pulled pork, beef rib/cheek/brisket are all great options
Pork - bacon, chorizo or other raw pork products work great with the flavours. Cook the meat first in the fat before making the roux, the flavour will infuse the cheese sauce and you get the pieces of meat throughout. Things to note with bacon: 1) it’s quite salty so paired with salty cheese it can be quite an intense result, so I’d recommend pairing with some sweetness/acid to cut through that 2) supermarket bacon is often cured with saline solution (e.g. injected with salt water) so cooking that will release a reasonable amount of liquid - as per the butter, make sure you reduce the liquid thoroughly.
Vegetables - Cauliflower and broccoli are an obvious and classic pairing that can be mixed into mac’n’cheese (or kale if you want to be a bit more hipster). Going this option I’d usually opt to roast the vegetables before adding them, this is for two reasons: 1) roasted cauliflower and broccoli (in my opinion) tastes wayyyy better than boiled or steamed, 2) Boiling them adds additional moisture and thats not going to combine with the cheese sauce so well once mixed together, so you risk having a more watery sauce (like the cheese sauce has split, but really its the additional water)
Tomatoes - As above, tomatoes naturally have a lot of liquid. If I am baking the mac’n’cheese I generally tend not to throw them in as-is as it adds too much liquid, in this case I’d generally tend to halve the tomatoes and quickly roast them in the oven with some olive oil and salt (and chopped chillis if you have them to hand). If not baking the mac’n’cheese then I’d just halve them and roughly mix them through the pasta, as in that state the tomatoes should normally have enough structural integrity to retain their liquid.
- 4 people
- 10 minutes
- 10 - 40 minutes (depending if you decide to bake)
- 350 grams extra mature cheddar (you can switch out the cheese as you wish)
- 30 grams of unsalted butter (roughly two tablespoons by volume)
- 15 grams of plain flour (roughly two tablespoons by volume)
- 400 ml milk
- 400 grams uncooked macaroni (or any pasta you like really)
- 200 grams chorizo sausage (whole)
- 15 grams of breadcrumbs (about 2 tablespoon by volume)
- 50 grams mozzarella (grated or torn)
- Pizza Wings rub from SubWolfer
- A lot of the measurements I normally do by eye. If the sauce looks too thick or is already very liquid, adjust the milk being added. Likewise, add the cheese until its a good consistency, and the toppings just keep tipping them on until they look good
- Start cooking the pasta
- Chop half of the chorizo (100 grams) finely, and fry in a pan until they start to release their oil
- Add the butter and continue to cook over a low heat until the butter has melted and bubbling subsided
- Stir through the flour until well combined, continue to cook for a minute or so to heat throughout
- At a fairly slow rate add the milk bit by bit, stirring together to thoroughly combine before adding more (I usually find a whisk the most effective for this)
- Once the milk is added, or you have reached a consistency you are happy with continue to heat and reduce a bit further
- Take off the heat altogether and add the grated cheese and gently stir through, leave for a minute and let the cheese melt
- Mix the cheese sauce and pasta together and transfer to a suitably sized baking dish
- Top the mac'n'cheese with the mozzarella, then a generous covering of Pizza Wings rub finishing with the remaining 100 grams of chorizo, cut into fairly thick slices
- Bake in the oven at 160C (fan oven) for anything from 20-40 minutes (if you need to keep it longer you can reduce the heat and let is keep cooking, it won't do it any harm.)
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