Or, how to get drunk and dirty every pot and pan you own.
And by enter, I mean wait until the last possible moment to put something together, but clearly having enough time to harass their host.
Honestly, I was nervous. There are a lot of amazing home cooks out there and although I’ve never killed anyone with my cooking, I’ve never been confident enough to enter a contest. I may have drank a beer or two to calm the nerves.
And that’s when I remembered the Black & Tan Mac & Cheese I had at The Unicorn in Calgary. Inspired, I drank another and began to write a list of ingredients. I started strong, making notes about pasta shapes, varieties of beer and cheese, but as the beer sank in, I began scribbling messages about Canadian unicorns that have yet to be deciphered.
The following day at the grocery store, I wanted something other than just cheddar, but as many vegetarians know, cheese can be prove to be difficult due to the common usage of animal rennet (enzyme used in cheese making). As much as I wanted to grab the beautiful wedges of fontina and gruyère, I wanted to be able to consume the final product and settled on two different extra-sharp cheddars made with a plant-based rennet.
I was reminded of a trip to Spain a few years back. We were celebrating the New Year with some close friends of The Husband and despite his fluency with the language and the presence of several other bilingual people, the description of rennet could not be translated. “Is this cheese made with meat?” was asked and the entire room of about 30 Spaniards went silent, snapped their heads toward me with looks that screamed, “Who let in the crazy American?”
Awkward, thy name is Smedette.
Still lacking a clear recipe, I poured myself a beer got to work in the kitchen by making soft-pretzels because cheese and beer make me want pretzels and holy-crap-I’m-going-to-use-these-pretzels-as-the-breadcrumbs!
Bavaria, I’m looking at you and all of your delicious calorific glory.
Multiple batches were made and I was never really happy with the results. Different beers went into the cheese sauce, roasted garlic and caramelized onions added to the pasta. I tried horseradish and two different mustards, but something was always off and I concluded the dish was cluttered with too many textures. It needed to be pasta, sauce and breadcrumbs. Feeling slightly defeated, I did what any reasonable person would do and drank a beer.
Caramelized onions, though delicious, were just too…French, and as much as I wanted to include onions in the dish, I ditched them for the sake of a traditional texture. To keep the flavor of garlic and horseradish, I simmered healthy doses of both in the cream and included a shot of liquid smoke to make up for the lack of smoky, nutty cheeses.
So, I give you my Bavarian-Inspired Macaroni and Cheese. Genießen!
- 1 cup soft pretzel crumbs; see note
- Fusilli (corkscrew pasta); the pasta I purchased came in 1lb bags and I used 1.5 bags (approximately 9.5 cups of uncooked pasta). This generously filled a standard 9″x13″ baking dish; maybe too much.
- 1 12oz bottle of beer; in the name of all that is sacred and holy, please go with a quality micro-brew and stay away from anything weird (eg: “with lime”) (gross) (who drinks that?). Choose a nice brown ale or even a stout if you’re feeling bold.
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup milk
- 4-6 cloves garlic; minced
- 1 tbsp horseradish; feel free to scale this back or omit all together if you are not a fan
- 5 tbsp unsalted butter; divided
- 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 1 tbsp mustard powder; I prefer Colman’s
- 4 cups shredded cheese; I used a mix of extra-sharp cheddars
- 1-2 tsp liquid smoke
- Salt and pepper; see note
A note about soft pretzels: I made a batch of soft pretzels the day prior to the great mac and cheese extravaganza, using the recipe from “The Joy of Cooking”. Unsure of copyright issues, I will not be posting the recipe here as you should own a copy of this book. If you do not, there is something wrong with you.
Knowing the pretzels were going to become breadcrumbs, I did not take the time to fold them in the tradition pretzel shape, but rather rolled them into golf ball-sized spheres. Once they were finished baking, I quartered them to allow more surface area to be exposed to the air whilst they dried out overnight. A few quick pulses in the food processor the next morning and I had soft pretzel crumbs.
Now, I understand if you do not want to go through the effort of making your own pretzels. I suppose you can purchase ready-made soft pretzels, but be sure to chop them up and allow to become stale before making crumbs. I have also seen Pretzel Bread at a local market, but cannot attest to the flavor or texture.
- Make pasta according to package directions. Drain, give a quick rinse and leave in colander.
- While pasta is cooking, in a pot over medium-low heat, warm beer, cream, milk, garlic and horseradish (if using). Do not let boil or scald and if necessary, reduce heat to low to keep this from happening. You just want to warm up everything and let the liquid take on the flavors of the garlic and horseradish. Stir occasionally.
- In the now-empty pasta pot, melt 3 tbsp of butter over medium-high heat until foaming. Add flour and mustard powder and whisk constantly until desired color has been reached (darker roux = more robust flavor). This can burn quickly so do not turn your back or stop whisking. Reduce heat to low.
- Pour warm beer mixture through a fine mesh strainer into pot with roux; discard solids. Whisk to incorporate.
- Add cheese to pot a handful at a time; whisk thoroughly.
- Once cheese has completely melted, turn off heat and whisk in 1 tsp of liquid smoke. Taste and decide if you need the second tsp. Liquid smoke can easily overwhelm a dish and become bitter in large quantities and depending on your beer selection, your sauce may already have a bitter quality to it. If you are concerned about it becoming too bitter, omit the liquid smoke.
- A note about salt: At this point you can add salt and pepper. I did not add any salt for the following reasons: I topped the pretzels with salt prior to baking, I tend to heavily salt the water when making pasta and the cheese I was using already had a salty flavor. However, taste the sauce and season to your liking.
- Preheat broiler. Add pasta to pot and stir with a spatula to coat evenly. Pour into a 9″x13″ broiler-proof baking dish.
- In a small pan over medium-high heat, melt remaining 2 tbsp butter. Add pretzel crumbs and toss to coat. Cook until just starting to toast and become fragrant; only a few minutes should do it.
- Sprinkle crumbs over pasta and broil until evenly browned; no longer than five minutes.
- Serve hot and with your favorite beer, of course.