In my family, Chuck’s macaroni and cheese is iconic. Does your family have dishes like this? Dishes that are requested by the guest of honor at birthdays and dreamed about by family members away from home for too long.
Over the years we have bullied Chuck into making his mac and cheese so often that, out of boredom, his recipe has morphed. Chuck cooks kind of like I do – which is to say that he chafes at strict recipes, loves to improvise, and can rarely manage to reproduce an exact replica of any dish. So now, when Chuck makes his mac and cheese, there is always a twist. Sometimes there’s bacon, sometimes chunks of pickled garlic. Whatever inspires Chuck ends up in the mac and cheese.
When we had friends over for dinner last weekend, it occurred to me that it would be awfully fun to let each one of us tinker with our own, individual bowl of Chuck’s mac and cheese. I made up a big pot of cheese sauce, and we each tossed the bubbling cheese with pasta and any other mix-ins we desired before throwing it in the oven to bake and crisp. Jeff, of course, dove right into the crumbled bacon and diced Italian sausage. I was a big fan of the steamed cauliflower and fresh herbs. Basically, anything goes here, so the toppings below are just suggestions. And as for the cheese sauce, feel free to adjust that to your tastes as well. Chuck sometimes mixes up the cheeses he includes, or throws a can of diced tomatoes directly into the cheese itself. But don’t skimp on the mustard powder – it’s Chuck’s (not so) secret ingredient.
Mac and Cheese Bar
For the pasta:
1 pound dry pasta (I like penne or rotini for this)
For the cheese sauce:
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup minced onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons mustard powder
2 cups milk
3 cups shredded extra sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup shredded parmesan cheese
For the toppings:
1/2 cup crumbled cooked bacon
1/2 cup diced cooked Italian sausage
1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
1/2 cup diced tomato
1 cup steamed cauliflower
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs (basil, dill, parsley and cilantro are all good options)
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup shredded parmesan cheese
Cook the pasta in plenty of salted boiling water until just al dente. Meanwhile, in a large pot, melt the butter. Sauté the onion and garlic in butter over medium heat until soft. Add in the flour and reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir in the salt, pepper, and mustard powder, and cook the flour mixture 5 minutes. Slowly add just a splash of milk, and wisk until a smooth paste forms. Add half of the remaining milk in a slow stream, wisking constantly. Wisk in the remaining milk and cook until slightly thickened, about 3 minutes more. Add in the cheeses and stir continually until the cheese is fully melted. Add additional salt and/or pepper to taste. Keep the cheese sauce warm over low heat while you assemble the mac and cheese.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease 8 oven proof bowls or ramekins. Give each guest his or her bowl to fill with pasta, cheese sauce, and any variety of mix-ins. I suggest topping with parmesan cheese and bread crumbs. Arrange the bowls on two jelly roll pans and bake until the tops start to brown and the cheese sauce is bubbling.