Return of the Mac

Pan of macaroni and cheeseMac ‘n’ cheese isn’t just for kids anymore

We all know that everything is better when it’s baked with cheese on it, so I wanted to focus on some amazing baked pasta dishes for you to consider offering in your fine establishment. The great thing about offering some fantastic baked pasta dishes is that you can go in any direction at all with them. You can offer them in a variety of portion sizes, ingredient choices, sauce options and price points. This means they will fit into any restaurant whether you are a quick-casual, takeout only or even an upscale bistro!

Now, I’ll admit that it’s definitely a good idea to consider different cheese blends to top different dishes to enhance that dish and flavor profile to make each dish a real “rockstar.” At the most basic is a cheese blend that you would use on some standards like lasagna, baked ziti, manicotti and even atop your chicken, eggplant and veal Parmesan. I love to mix a 50/50 blend of shredded or diced mozzarella and provolone cheese and then about five percent of grated Parmesan with a small amount of chopped parsley. It gives your standard mozzarella a kick.

Now whether you use this blend or any other for your baked pasta dishes you want to make sure it doesn’t come out of the oven and onto the plate until you have some nice golden, blistery bubbles. When I train my cooks, I show them that very specific look of the golden browned cheese that our customer must be served and I refer to that as the “money shot.” I try to get them to think of each baked pasta dish they prepare as if they were preparing it for the cover of a magazine! Simply serving a blanket of white (barely) melted cheese is not good enough. So make sure you are going for that “money shot!”

There are So many different shapes of pasta, ingredients and sauces to choose from, I don’t know where to begin … so let’s start at the beginning!

Yes, you guessed it: mac and cheese is one of (almost) everybody’s comfort foods, and when you can make it better than anyone else, folks will go out of their way just to get some. I learned back in culinary school many years ago how to properly make a cheese sauce by starting with a béchamel sauce (which essentially is nice cream sauce). Next, you want to add your cheddar cheese or whatever cheese you want to make your cheese sauce. Since I’ve lived in the South, however, for the last 9½ years, I’ve learned the southern way of making “Mac ‘n’ Cheese” — which actually is easier and way more hearty and custard-like (which a lot of folks REALLY like)!

macaroni and cheeseUsing the base recipe below, now we can go in many different directions and even get a little crazy with our options. How about a gourmet version of Mac ‘n’ Cheese with a four-cheese blend of aged cheddar, Havarti, Gorgonzola and smoked Gouda? Always use a smaller ratio when using smoked cheeses due to their potent characteristics.

What? You want to add some lobster or crabmeat to this to kick it up 10 notches? Not a problem. Just make sure you know what price point your customers are willing to pay.
How about an assortment of wild mushrooms with some sautéed spinach and roasted red peppers to make a very hearty vegetarian entrée?

Now just with a mac ‘n’ cheese base you can see how versatile it can be, but remember there are so many other sauces that can be used and mixed to create even more options. I mix some of our marinara with our Alfredo to make a tomato cream sauce. Many operators add a touch of vodka to make a Vodka sauce. I like to mix some of our homemade pesto with the Alfredo to make a creamy pesto sauce. I sauté some green and red bell peppers with garlic, onions and crushed red peppers and then simmer it with some marinara to create a Fra Diavolo sauce. These are three new sauces created out of existing sauces that are all fantastic to toss with pasta and protein like chicken, shrimp and salmon — along with steak and lobster — and baked with a blend of cheese to create a very memorable dining experience!

So get creative and look at ingredients that are perhaps being under-utilized in your restaurant and put them to work in some great baked pasta dishes. Offering a smaller portion for lunch is a very smart idea! What’s even smarter than that is to create a large pan of your baked pasta dishes to be accompanied by a great salad and some nice garlic knots or breadsticks for the perfect catered event!

Mac ‘n’ Cheese

½ gallon half and half
1 pound butter
2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
2 pounds cheddar cheese (use sharp cheddar for a kick, or add some Parmesan cheese)
3 pounds pasta (elbow macaroni or small shells)

Heat half & half and butter. Add to it a couple of tablespoons of salt, 1 teaspoon of black pepper and a tablespoon of granular garlic.

Boil your favorite pasta (many folks use elbows, or small shells) in salted water until fully (not overly) cooked. When you make your pasta “al dente” for mac ‘n’ cheese, the pasta will drink up the sauce, creating a dryer product than you intended.

Once it’s done, drain the pasta, put it in a mixing bowl and add the hot cream and butter. Immediately add 2 pounds of shredded cheddar cheese. Use a sharper cheese depending on your liking. If the cheddar doesn’t give a sharp enough taste, add some Parmesan cheese to it, which gives it a wonderful enhancement. This can be served just like that once it’s mixed enough, or you can bake it with or without some extra cheese on top. If you want this to be a bit custard-like, add about 6 eggs before you bake it, and then toss it in the oven at 375 for about 20 minutes.

Jeff Freehof  owns The Garlic Clove in Evans, Georgia. He is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today and a speaker at International Pizza Expo.