Make mac and cheese more than a side dish
Not long ago in my pizzeria, I stood there doubting my ability to act like a real adult. After coming to the realization that I was just a child inside, I made a decision, about two things: mac and cheese.
We had a crazy pizza called “Wonderboy” that had a hot dog-stuffed crust with mustard, then tomato sauce, cheddar, mozzarella, bacon, beef, onions, tomato, dill pickles and French fries all slathered with ketchup. We sold a lot of these monsters, especially after 2 a.m. but as the next year arrived, we tired of making this same old monster and things had to change. In walked the idea of using mac and cheese as a sauce. It was then that “Bride of Wonderboy” was launched and became even more popular than its predecessor.
Macaroni and cheese have been recorded as far back as the 14th century. It was probably used even earlier in southern Italy where the pasta casserole was popular. Even Thomas Jefferson was a mac and cheese aficionado and brought a pasta machine back to the U.S. from Italy. His cheese fondness was for Parmigiano, and the pasta was not the macaroni we know today. Cheddar has now taken over as the cheese of choice for most macaroni dishes, but this famous dish isn’t just a side dish anymore. Many restaurants are turning this delicious appetizer into amazing entrees and much, much more.
Pasta and cheese have very wide array of accompanying flavors that are great with this dynamic duo.
Macaroni. Butter; sage; pesto; clams; lamb; beef; pork; butternut squash; oxtail; leeks; lemon; mint; mushrooms; olives; fennel; lobster; fish; basil; capers; anchovy; chicken; walnuts; goat cheese; ricotta; egg; truffles; garlic; nutmeg; peas; pecans; bread crumbs; spinach; white beans; cream; Gorgonzola; tomato; pecorino; prosciutto; sardines; saffron; raisons; chickpeas; figs; pancetta; pepper; chilies; cilantro; rosemary; Bolognese sauce; rabbit; veal; pumpkin; squid; broccoli; soy; octopus; arugula; radicchio and eggplant along with many others.
Cheddar Cheese. Eggs; grapes; honey; thyme; walnuts; paprika; cooked onion; black pepper; potatoes; cream; fennel; bacon; bread; pasta; quince; pears; apples; mostarda; Dijon mustard; beer; cayenne; dates and pimento.
Here are some types of cheddar cheese to consider:
- English cheddars. The best cheddars from Britain are the farmhouse wheels almost impossible to get here. Some of the greats come from –– drum roll –– a town called Cheddar. Over there, it is served with bread or crackers, fruit pies and tarts, one-dish meals or grated over salads. If this cheddar is aged over six months, it affords a more toothsome melt.
- Aged Irish cheddar. This has a nuttiness similar to Swiss but the nice bite of piquancy that aged cheddars exhibit. This is a true killer melt or a great grating cheese in salads if you can afford the $10 per pound price.
- American aged cheddar. Usually aged for at least four months, this cheese has less nuttiness and more up-front richness than the Irish. This is rich and creamy and melts great. It costs between $3 and $3.50 per pound.
- American Feather shredded. This cheese is rich and creamy. Look out for food coloring and caking agents to prevent sticking. Usually the cheaper the cheese, the more burn you’ll get under heat. At $2.70 per pound, this may be a good choice if your labor costs are climbing.
- American “packer” label cheddar. This cheese is definitely colored and cheap. Usually cut into fine shreds, it contains powdered cellulose as anti-caking. Remember that if you go cheap, part-skim cheeses will burn quicker. It would be better to use whole milk cheddar if you are only paying 15 cents and ounce for this stuff.
- Cheddar curd. These are excellent deep-fried with beer (just saying!). Pulled directly from the vats, they have a spongy character and stand up well before melting. They harden a little faster than cheddar and cost almost $4 a pound.
- Imitation cheddar. Mostly water, oil, whey and salt with artificial color and a host of preservatives. This comes shredded and ready to use at 18 cents an ounce. If you’re not worried about giving your customers the crummiest food in the history of the world, this is for you!
The availability of mac and cheese is wide. If you have a range, you can cook your own macaroni from dried. Real masters of pasta like James Beard Award-winning chef Hari Cameron makes all his pasta from scratch in his mac and cheese-themed restaurant Grandpa Mac’s. If you don’t have access to an extruder or the finesse it takes to go for top-of-the-line mac and cheese it is available in frozen form at 14 cents an ounce.
Mac and Cheese Crabcakes
When I worked in Washington D.C., I was introduced to the best crab cakes in the world. Unlike much of the mealy Midwestern crab cakes I had eaten that had little or no discernible crab meat in them, these cakes with the large chunks of crab meat stood as beacons to humanity’s love of seafood. Here, I’ve introduced mac and cheese into the mix, (don’t tell those chefs in D.C.) using only the few ingredients and binders that make this a great crab cake. There is a certain finesse required in cooking these beauties because they can easily fall apart if you are heavy handed. A nice fish spatula is very handy in turning these.
Here are a few new twists on the Mac and Cheese angle:
- Mac and cheese-cake
- Mac and cheese sushi
- Mac and cheese ice cream with candied bacon
- Mac and cheese grilled cheese sandwich
- Mac and cheese taco
- Mac and cheese muffins
- Mac and cheese tamales
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.