Smoky Chipotle Mac & Cheese

It only ranks third in America’s overall favorite comfort food (behind pizza and burgers), but here in the South, mac and cheese reigns supreme. It was the first dish I posted on Comfort du Jour when I finally got the nerve to start my blog and, as you can see, we enjoy making fun variations of it at our house! This simple, versatile side dish is like a blank canvas—you can apply so many flavors to it and, with all the different pasta shapes available, hardly ever have a repeat.

The main thing you need for super creamy mac and cheese is a velvety base, and for me, that means a bechamel—which is just a fancy French word that describes “white sauce.” Bechamel is one of the five so-called mother sauces, because it serves so many purposes. The key ingredients of a classic Bechamel are butter and flour (cooked together in equal parts), and milk. The fat in the butter coats the starch in the flour, and the resulting paste serves to thicken whatever liquid is added to it—in this case, milk.

This butter-flour magic is called a “roux,” and it’s one of the first things I remember really learning from time spent in my grandmother’s kitchen. When she first told me about this important technique, I thought Gram was calling it “Roo”—like Kanga’s baby from the Winnie and the Pooh books (that’s how young I was). Since that very early lesson, I’ve learned how to spell roux, and how to adjust it for different applications.

The intensity of cooking on the roux changes its properties, and you can easily use this to your advantage, based on what you are making. For a thick, creamy white sauce, cook the flour in the butter over medium heat, just long enough to achieve a foamy appearance, then add milk all at once and whisk until it is thickened. Season it with salt and pepper, perhaps a little grated nutmeg (essential, in my opinion, for a real bechamel) or another seasoning you like, to match how you plan to use it. If I were to layer this creamy sauce with thinly sliced Yukon gold potatoes and onions, I might substitute ground cumin for the nutmeg, because I love the flavor of cumin with potatoes. Slide that into the oven for about an hour, and you’d be enjoying scalloped potatoes. Melt cheese into the sauce before layering, and you’d have potatoes au gratin.

Cook the flour and butter a bit longer to the point of being brown and toasty-looking, and you’ll have a roux with more complex flavor, but slightly less thickening power. This is what I usually do when I make mac and cheese, because I don’t need the bechamel to be quite as thick on its own (the melted-in cheese makes up for that), and because the browned butter in the base lends a warm, nutty aroma and flavor to the dish.


Incidentally, it does not have to be real butter. A roux can be made with any type of fat, including plant-based butters, cooking oil or even lard or bacon grease. I have also found success using gluten-free flour, as there is usually enough starch in it to produce similar results as one made with regular, all-purpose flour. I have even read that almond flour can be used in roux (though I have not tested this). As long as the starch and fat molecules play nice, you’ll end up with a roux that will thicken. 

For a roux with even more heft and complexity, such as for gumbo, cook the flour in oil rather than butter, and do it low and slow—even in the oven, if you want to go hands-free—and you’ll have a developed flavor that can’t be equaled with any add-in ingredient. More on that another day. 😊

The dish I’m sharing today is another spin on my basic mac and cheese, with the addition of chipotle, one of the most favored flavors at our house. Though a subtle touch of chipotle could be added with a few sprinkles of ground chipotle powder (either before or after the cheese is added to the roux), I’ve opted to use a couple of spoonsful of pureed chipotle with adobo sauce. These are the little cans you find in the “international” section of the supermarket. Chipotle peppers are essentially dried, smoked jalapenos that have been rehydrated to a plump state. We dump the entire contents of a small can into the food processor, to be used in a variety of Mexican-themed dishes, including Les’s Smoky Guacamole and my South of the Border Crab Cakes.

For this batch of mac and cheese, I chose whole grain rotini because of its heft and texture. When you choose a pasta with lots of surface area, you should expect to adjust the pasta-to-sauce ratio (all those twists and curves are going to need extra sauce). I topped the dish with a mixture of crushed crispy fried jalapenos (from Trader Joe’s) and plain panko breadcrumbs.

As for the cheese, I went with a medium-sharp cheddar as the main flavor, but the base cheese is yellow American. You probably already know that very sharp cheeses do not melt as well as their milder counterparts. And I’m sure you know about the exquisite melting qualities of American cheese, despite its bad rap, which is not fairly earned.

Saying “American cheese is not cheese” is like saying “meatloaf is not meat.”

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt


Ingredients

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1/2 large onion, diced fairly fine

3 Tbsp. salted butter

4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups milk

6 oz. yellow American cheese, cubed* (see notes)

10 oz. medium-sharp yellow cheddar, shredded

2 Tbsp. chipotle w/ adobo puree (more or less, depending on your tolerance for heat)

A few shakes of ground cumin, for added smokiness

Salt and pepper to taste

2/3 lb. whole grain rotini (if using smoother pasta, use an entire pound)


Topping:

1/3 cup crispy fried jalapenos (or fried onions, if you prefer less heat)

1/4 cup plain panko breadcrumbs


*Notes

I used to think that American cheese was fake food, but this article on Serious Eats convinced me otherwise. Yes, it is processed, but it is not made up of ingredients and chemicals pretending to be cheese. It is real cheese, processed with special salts to result in a smooth, creamy texture when melted. I do not feel this way about the brand that begins with a V (and I think you all know which one I’m referring to), but I am OK with American cheese now and then, and I consider it essential as a melting base for my mac and cheese. Yeah, what J. Kenji said.

If you have an immersion blender, I encourage you to take the step I’ll describe for whipping your cheese sauce into ultra-creamy territory. It is optional, of course, but a total game changer in my mac and cheese endeavors.


Instructions

Smoky Chipotle Mac & Cheese!


Savory Pumpkin Mac & Cheese

When push comes to shove on the whole “pumpkin spice” issue, you’ll find me squarely on the side of those who love the seasonal combination, and I made that obvious recently with my post for sourdough pumpkin spice waffles. But I get it—the flavor isn’t for everyone, or maybe it used to be but has become overplayed, kind of like any number of the classic rock songs that always seem to come up in heavy rotation on our music streaming services. Do I want music with dinner? You bet! But please, not “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Piano Man” for the 37th time this week.

And I guess, for many people, it is the same with pumpkin spice, and we can thank Starbucks and Trader Joe’s for that. But don’t blame it on the pumpkin, which is one of nature’s true powerhouse foods—full of fiber, low in calories, a good source of potassium and, like every other orange-hued vegetable, loaded with the antioxidant vitamin known as beta-carotene. You can still enjoy the benefits of pumpkin without the cliché cinnamon and nutmeg.

Today’s recipe is a perfectly savory example for using and serving this ubiquitous autumn gourd. I had a little better than half a can of pumpkin puree left over from the sourdough waffles I had made, and that was more than enough to flavor up the béchamel-based cheese sauce that wraps around the caserecce pasta in this dish. The other additions to this savory, meatless meal were inspired by the infused olive oil that is my go-to cooking agent this time of year.

My wild mushroom and sage olive oil does not have a brand because the stores that sell it are franchised from Veronica Foods. Look for it in a specialty store near you.

Every fall, I purchase a new bottle of this stuff and I use it in so many things, such as roasting vegetables, frying potatoes, amping up the earthy flavor in vegan dishes and even in some of my homemade sourdough bread recipes. For this mac and cheese, I used the mushroom and sage oil in the roux (along with real butter), but I used actual mushrooms and fresh sage in the final dish, too.

Tastes like autumn!

The color is vibrant and autumn-like, and the aroma of the sage is, well, intoxicating. The mac and cheese was easy to make, and you can skip the step of baking it, if you prefer a quicker stovetop version. Either way, I hope it gives you a chance to enjoy pumpkin without the overplayed “sweet and spice” aspect.

And for those of you sitting on my side of the pumpkin spice fence, don’t you worry! I’ll be sharing a fun new pumpkin spice recipe that covers my entire wish list for an easy, no-bake Thanksgiving dessert. It’s so simple, I even made it without a kitchen! Watch for it in the second week of November.


Ingredients

4 Tbsp. wild mushroom and sage olive oil* (see notes)

1/2 medium onion, chopped

3 Tbsp. salted butter

4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

8 oz. smoked gouda (processed)*, shredded

8 oz. sharp cheddar, shredded

1/2 cup pumpkin puree (not pie filling!)

5 or 6 cremini mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed

Small handful fresh sage leaves, finely minced

1 lb. firm pasta shape*

2 Tbsp. melted butter or olive oil

1/4 cup panko bread crumbs

1/4 cup parm-romano blend (optional, see notes)


*Notes

The wild mushroom and sage-infused olive oil is available at specialty oil and vinegar shops. If you cannot get your hands on it, use any favorite olive oil or substitute butter.

The smoked gouda I used for this recipe was technically a “processed” cheese, similar to American in texture. In most of my cheese sauces, I use a processed cheese in the base because it provides a creamier texture. If you prefer, use regular cheese and expect a slightly less silky sauce.

Many of my mac and cheese recipes call for elbows, but when I intend for the dish to be an entree, I choose a sturdier pasta shape, such as caserecce, rotini or farfalle (bow ties). It adds a little more body and makes it more satisfying.

Here’s something interesting I’ve learned recently in my research and development of “meatless” dishes: there is no such thing as vegetarian parmesan. According to this article and many others I’ve found online, the process for making certain cheeses (including parmesan and pecorino romano) requires the use of animal rennet, and there is apparently no suitable substitute. Rennet is an enzyme found in the digestive system of animals, and it cannot be extracted from them while they are living. If you adhere to a vegetarian diet for reasons of animal welfare, omit my parm-romano blend from any of my otherwise “meatless” recipes, and always read labels on the cheeses you buy, just to be sure.


Instructions

  1. Heat 2 Tbsp. of the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed pot. Saute the onions until soft, then transfer most of them to a separate bowl.
  2. Add butter to the pot until melted. Add the flour and whisk until the flour is absorbed and appears bubbly. Add the milk all at once, cooking and whisking continuously until the mixture is smooth and thickened, which could be 8 to 12 minutes. Add shredded gouda and stir or whisk until melted and creamy. Repeat with shredded cheddar. Stir in pumpkin puree until evenly blended.
  3. For the creamiest sauce, process with an immersion blender for about one minute. This step is optional, but I am sold on this technique, as my sauces turn out as smooth as velvet.
  4. Prepare the pasta to the al-dente stage, and proceed with the next step while it is cooking.
  5. In a separate skillet, heat remaining 2 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Brown the mushroom slices, working in batches if necessary to avoid crowding. Add the sautéed onions to heat through and sprinkle in the rosemary.
  6. Drain the pasta and add it to the cheese sauce, stirring until creamy. I generally add the pasta half at a time, to ensure that I have enough sauce. Fold in the mushroom-onion mixture. If you’re planning to bake the mac and cheese, transfer it to a 2 qt. baking dish and preheat the oven to 350° F.
  7. Melt 2 Tbsp. butter in the skillet used for the mushrooms. I had two extra mushrooms, which I chopped into fine bits and sautéed briefly. Toss panko crumbs in the butter mixture and sprinkle it over the mac and cheese before baking.
  8. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until crumb topping is slightly crunchy and cheese is bubbling up around all the edges. Cool 10 minutes before serving.

Savory Pumpkin Mac & Cheese with Mushrooms and Sage


Mac and Pimiento Cheese

Show up at any family reunion or church potluck in the South, and you can bet your sweet tea you’ll find at least three kinds of mac and cheese on the table, plus a couple of pimiento cheese appetizers (probably layered thinly in little white bread finger sandwiches). I love doing mashups of classic foods, and so it seemed obvious to me that pimiento cheese should be paired with mac and cheese. It’s a beautiful, diet-be-danged casserole collision, if I do say so myself.

If you have made any of my other mac and cheese recipes, you know that American cheese is usually the standard in my cheese sauce base. The special salts and enzymes in American cheese are what gives it that ultra-creamy, ooey-gooey meltability, and isn’t that the best thing about mac and cheese?


But pimiento cheese has its own character (namely, it’s mayonnaise-y) and I didn’t want it to feel overshadowed in this mashup. Last summer, I shared the recipe that my husband, Les, uses for pimiento cheese, and it is awesome but not a classic “Southern” style (mainly because it was not drenched in enough greasy mayonnaise). My own pimiento cheese recipe is also shy-of-classic, because I blend together mayonnaise and cream cheese for the base, and it’s probably no surprise that I usually add unexpected ingredients such as jalapeno or chopped pickles. I just can’t leave well enough alone.

For this “mac and pimiento cheese,” which just happens to be my 200th post here on Comfort du Jour, I leaned on cream cheese rather than American in the base for my cheese sauce. I really wanted the smooth, velvety texture of the mild cream cheese to anchor all the cheddar that’s happening throughout the rest of the dish. For the pimiento cheese accents, I used a whole jar of roasted red peppers, drained and chopped into small pieces. Some of them went into the cheese sauce, but the rest found their way into a quick mayo-based pimiento cheese that was layered in with the cooked noodles and cheese sauce before baking. All those dollops gave this mac and cheese that distinctive mayonnaise-y tang that is so signature to a good, classic Southern pimiento cheese.

Oh mercy me, look at that pimiento cheese dripping through that mac and cheese!

Disclaimer warning on this one—there’s a lot of richness in this recipe, and the chance is fair to middlin’ this mac and pimiento cheese will crush your calorie count, so you would do well to consider it dinner all on its own or with a fresh side salad. Here we go, y’all!


Ingredients

Cheese sauce

1/2 medium onion, diced small

4 Tbsp. salted butter

4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

6 oz. cream cheese, softened to room temp* (this was most of a standard brick)

8 oz. brick sharp cheddar, shredded* (see notes)

About half of a 7 oz. jar of pimientos or roasted red peppers, drained and chopped


Pimiento cheese dollops

2 oz. cream cheese, softened to room temp (the rest of the brick)

1/4 cup mayonnaise

A few shakes sweet paprika

The other half of the 7 oz. jar of pimientos or roasted red peppers, drained and chopped

4 oz. sharp cheddar, shredded (this was roughly a cup)


For assembling the casserole

Most of a 1 lb. package of macaroni or other pasta*

1/4 cup panko bread crumbs

1 Tbsp. salted butter, melted

1/4 cup parm-romano blend (ours was seasoned with “chili onion crunch” from Trader Joe’s)


*Notes

I recommend regular, full-fat cream cheese for this recipe. I have found that the light version does not maintain the creamy texture in a heated sauce. For the complete recipe, I used an entire 8 oz. brick of cream cheese, but it was divided nearly evenly between the cheese sauce and the pimiento cheese mixture.

Two kinds of cheddar went into my mac and pimiento cheese, because we like spicy stuff at our house. I used an entire 8 oz. brick of sharp cheddar and half a brick of habanero cheddar. Mix and match to your liking, but reserve about a cup of shredded cheese for the pimiento cheese mixture.

Pimientos are a variety of pepper, and though it is easy to find jars of pimientos at the market, I used a large jar of roasted red peppers because that is what I had in the cabinet. You might even choose to roast fresh peppers yourself—that’s what I usually do when I make my own version of pimiento cheese. If you choose jarred peppers or pimientos, be sure to drain them well and use a paper towel to wick away excess moisture.

I held back about 1/4 of the box of pasta for this recipe, because I wanted it to be extra “saucy.” Classic elbow macaroni works great in a mac and cheese, and I always encourage choosing pasta that is labeled “bronze die cut,” because the surface of the pasta is rougher and holds a sauce extremely well. Cook your pasta just barely to the “al dente” stage, or a bit underdone than you would prefer. When you bake the mac and cheese, it will soften further from the heat and the cheese sauce.


Instructions

  1. Make the béchamel: melt butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Saute the onions until soft. Sprinkle in the flour and stir to combine. Cook until flour is absorbed and bubbly. Add milk and whisk until smooth.
  2. Add the first amount of cream cheese to the béchamel and whisk until smooth and creamy. Add the shredded cheddar, a handful at a time, and whisk until smooth. Use immersion blender (optional) to amplify the creamy texture of the cheese sauce.
  3. Pat dry the first amount of pimientos or roasted red peppers, and stir them into the cheese sauce.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350° F, with oven rack in center position.
  5. Cook the elbow macaroni or pasta according to package instructions until just al dente. Slightly undercooked is better than overcooked, as the pasta will absorb moisture form the cheese sauce during baking. Drain the pasta and cool slightly.
  6. Combine the remaining cream cheese and mayo, whisking as needed to create a smooth-textured spread. Add the remaining pimientos (pat them dry first), paprika and remaining shredded cheddar.
  7. Fold the cooked pasta into the cheese sauce and layer about half of it into a glass 8 x 8 inch casserole. Spoon dollops of pimiento cheese mixture randomly over the mac and cheese, then layer on the rest of the pasta mixture. Spoon remaining pimiento cheese over the surface of the mac and cheese, but do not spread it.
  8. Bake the mac and cheese, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle the cheesy panko crumbs all over the top of the mac and cheese. Slide it back into the oven for 15 more minutes. Cool 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
Life is good, y’all!


Savory Sausage Mac & Cheese (baked in a pumpkin!)

Oh yes, I did. Working on Comfort du Jour has inspired me to new levels of creativity, and I’m having a great time throwing playful twists onto foods everyone already loves. I have been thinking about the humble pumpkin, and how it has been unfairly pigeonholed into the category of “sweet” foods. Does anyone even remember what pumpkin tastes like without the “spice?” This edible gourd has so much going on, nutritionally and flavor-wise, and I wanted to remind my friends that pumpkin can be enjoyed without all that sugar. My goal with this post is kind of like the old Sears campaign, except that here I’m elevating “the savory side of pumpkin.”

For some time, I’ve imagined making a showstopper like this—I’ve taken the quintessential comfort food, macaroni and cheese, and merged it with the best flavors of Thanksgiving—sausage, dark greens, onions and sage, and then stuffed the whole thing into a sweet little pumpkin. The result is as delicious as it is delightful to look at, from the creamy and comforting texture of a gruyere cheese sauce that’s been spiked with pumpkin and savory roasted garlic, to the warm and rustic flavors of pork sausage, sautéed leafy kale and twice baked seasonal pumpkin.

This turned out even better than I imagined!

To be fair, you could make this recipe with half as much mac and cheese filling as the instructions describe. I only used a third of it in my small-ish pumpkin and poured the rest into a separate casserole dish for later. On my first try, I was leery of using a larger pumpkin, though I will surely try it again. If you don’t feel up to the task of messing with the pumpkin at all, I promise the mac and cheese is worth its weight all by itself. Yum.

This was SO much fun!


These were the star ingredients of the dish, but it was the combination of all the ingredients that made it so special!


Ingredients

1 small pie pumpkin (mine was about 3 pounds)

Extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper

1 medium onion, chopped and divided between cheese sauce and sausage filling

3 Tbsp. salted butter

3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

3 oz. (6 Tbsp.) mascarpone (or full fat cream cheese)

1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree (not pie filling)

1 cup freshly shredded gruyere cheese

1/2 cup freshly shredded sharp white cheddar cheese

1 whole bulb roasted garlic

12 oz. box elbow macaroni, cooked to al dente stage

8 oz. seasoned bulk pork sausage (mine had sage and black pepper)

2 heaping cups fresh kale leaves, washed and chopped

2 Tbsp. parm-romano blend to top the filling mixture


Instructions

First, I prepped the pumpkin for roasting, which was pretty simple. I followed the same steps as when making roast acorn squash.


The next step was the béchamel, my go-to base for any mac and cheese recipe. You may remember this part from my first recipe post, or from one of my leftover creations, such as my version of mac and greens or the ultra-decadent mac and cheese waffles. Once you master a béchamel sauce, the possibilities are endless. 🙂


My cheese sauce made me very happy. I took a spoonful into the den for my husband, Les, to taste, and he immediately loved it as well. But here’s where things took a slightly disappointing turn. Remember the cute little pumpkin pastas? Well, they were pretty much a mess. In addition to their thick, heavy texture (and the fact that all the pieces fell apart), the primary flavor was starch. I was not having it. You guys know I get pretty excited about the specialty items at Trader Joe’s, but this one was decidedly not a winner. Thankfully, we have another supermarket very near the house, and I hightailed it over there for some dependable elbow macaroni. I’m not willing to “settle” when I’m trying to make a special dish, you know what I mean? 🙂


Moving along to the sausage, and this part was easy! I browned the sausage in a skillet, using a little vegetable broth to assist with breaking up the larger pieces. I added the chopped onion and then the kale, and cooked until the onions were tender and the kale was wilted, but still bright green. It smelled amazing in my kitchen!


From here, the assembly was a cinch. I cooked up my elbow macaroni to al dente stage, which is just shy of done, and still a little resistance to the bite. Thankfully, this pasta came out perfect! Fold in all of the creamy cheese sauce (even if it seems like too much), and then fold in the sausage mixture. I spooned as much of the mac and cheese as would fit inside the roasted pumpkin, and the rest went into a casserole dish for another meal. How much do you wanna bet I end up putting the leftovers in the waffle iron?


The stuffed pumpkin went back into the 350° F oven. It roasted for about 45 minutes, then I turned off the oven and left it alone while we finished a Zoom call with friends. Honest to goodness, this turned out better than I dreamed it would. The flavor was exceptional, and it was so pretty and just plain fun!

This was creamy, satisfying, and absolutely brimming with savory fall flavors!

Want to make this fun fall recipe?

Follow the steps and instructions above, or download and print a copy for your recipe files.


Waffled Mac and Cheese—yes, please!

There are “leftovers,” and then there are “planned-overs.” The latter is a concept frequently referenced by my aunt, who is all in favor of planning to have extra portions of a recipe, specifically to be used in something else later on.

This is a planned-over that I’ve tried (and missed) before, but this time, it was a big-time winner. Friends, it’s comfort times two—mac and cheese, waffled!

Go ahead, drool a little. I know you want to make these.

These are easy to make, but obviously, you need to have a waffle maker to make this happen. My first (failed) effort was on a Belgian-style waffle maker—not a great idea, and I’m certain the thick, deeply indented shape contributed to the not-so-fab outcome. For the best texture and even, perfectly crispy edges, go with a standard square-style waffle maker. Mine has a non-stick coating, so pulling the finished waffles off the iron was cheesy-breezy.

To plan ahead for these planned-overs, skip back to my basic mac and cheese recipe, and follow the instructions, but stop after the stove-top stage—no casserole into the oven, or else your mac and cheese waffles will be dry and tough. Reserve about 1/2 cup of the cheese sauce, for decadent drizzling on the finished waffles. Go ahead and bake some of the mac and cheese if you’d like, but hold back enough to make waffles in whatever quantity you wish.

Here, I spread the unbaked portion of mac and cheese evenly into a 9 x 13 glass casserole dish, about 1 inch deep. Cover and chill until you’re ready to dive into this decadence.


Ready to get cooking?

Here’s a quick recap for making my bechamel-based cheese sauce. Use the link to the original recipe for ingredient amounts and detailed descriptions.


Ingredients

Prepared basic mac and cheese, reserve 1/2 cup of the cheese sauce for serving.

1 large egg, beaten with a tablespoon of water

3/4 cup unseasoned panko bread crumbs

1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan or parm-romano blend*

Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Reserved cheese sauce

1/3 cup heavy cream or half and half


*Notes

At our house, we always have a 50/50 blend of deli-quality parmesan and romano cheeses. We purchase the cheese in blocks and shred it with the food processor. It beats the daylights out of store-bought parmesan cheese, and we save a good bit of money in the long run.


Instructions

The visual description will probably cover it for you, but written instructions are included below, just in case.

Cut chilled mac and cheese into squares or rectangles, to match the size of your waffle maker sections.

Place the beaten egg into a shallow glass dish. Dip each piece of mac and cheese into the egg wash, using a spoon as necessary to fully drench the mac and cheese with the egg mixture.

Combine panko crumbs, parmesan, salt and pepper in a second shallow glass dish. Dredge the egg washed mac and cheese in the crumb mixture, pressing crumbs into the nooks and crannies to ensure even coating. Transfer coated mac and cheese to a parchment-lined cookie sheet and allow them to rest about 15 minutes.

Preheat the waffle iron to 400° F.

Press additional crumb mixture onto any bare spots on the mac and cheese. Arrange the pieces into the waffle iron, and press to close. Allow them to bake about 10 minutes, or until they are golden brown and lightly crispy on the outside. They should also release easily from the iron.

While the mac and cheese waffles are baking, warm the leftover cheese sauce, whisking in up to 1/3 cup heavy cream or half and half until the sauce is thinner and pourable.

Serve the decadent crispy waffles with a generous drizzle of the cheese sauce.

Too much cheese. Said NO ONE, ever.

We served these as a hearty side to some juicy, quick-brined pork chops and leftover collard greens. But wouldn’t they also look great alongside some southern fried chicken or meatloaf or burgers or—OK, with just about anything? 😊

The only thing better than mac and cheese is WAFFLED mac and cheese!

Want to print this recipe?



“Leftovers” Mac & Cheese with Collards

I’m on a crusade to empty out all the random dishes of this-and-that in the refrigerator, and that usually leads to a short list of outcomes. We might end up having a “potpourri” night, where nothing really goes together but at least it’s sustenance. Or we might decide we’ve enjoyed the original dishes on their own for long enough, and we quietly turn the dishes out into the trash can, which is wasteful and leaves me feeling unresourceful. And every once in a blue moon, the random leftovers have a common thread and speak to me in a way that leads to a crazy good meal that hardly feels like leftovers at all.

Option No. 3 is on our plate this time, with leftover southern collard greens, a single leftover smoked sausage (infused with Texas Pete flavor), some crumbs of ghost pepper potato chips and too many half-used chunks of cheese in the deli drawer.

Kicked-up mac and cheese, baby. The sausage is cooked in smoke, so it has a nice firm texture, easy to cube and fry in a skillet until crispy. I’m inspired to add the collard greens because of a trip Les and I made to NYC in late 2018, and we took the subway up to Harlem for dinner at The Red Rooster, owned by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. He has a popular dish on his menu called “mac and greens,” featuring (you guessed it) cooked collards.


We were lucky to get a table at Red Rooster during the holiday season. All of New York was bustling, and the restaurant was lively and loud and fabulous. I ordered Poppa Eddie’s Shrimp & Grits, which was like a rich and flavorful gumbo served over creamy cheese grits. Les enjoyed the Hot Honey Yardbird. Yes, it was half a chicken, and yes, he finished the whole thing. But the restaurant staff told us, by far, the most popular menu item was the mac and greens, so we ordered it as a starter to our incredible meal. It was so crazy good, and I can’t explain why it has taken me until now to create my own version of it at home.

This is another perfect example of Comfort du Jour—a classic comfort food elevated with unexpected ingredients, and, as a bonus in homage to my frugal grandmother (and role model in all things kitchen-y), this one happens to empty out a bunch of leftovers to boot. Oh, this is gonna be fun!

I haven’t made mac and cheese since my first blog post back in April, so it’s definitely time. If you missed that post, you can check it out now, but I’ll offer a quick refresher course on making the star of the dish, which is the bechamel-based cheese sauce.

For starters, get some American cheese for the melting quality that cannot be matched with only block cheeses. The rest of the cheese is best freshly grated rather than pre-shredded in a bag. We are looking for extreme creaminess, and if you have an immersion blender, pull it out of the cabinet because that is my secret weapon for the silkiest, creamiest cheese sauce in minutes. Ready?


Ingredients

6 oz. orrechiette* (I had half of a 12 oz. box)

3 Tbsp. each butter and flour

1 3/4 cups whole milk (2% would be OK, but less rich)

5 oz. American cheese (the kind you get by the pound in the deli)

6 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded* (most of a regular block)

A few twists of freshly ground black pepper

1 cup leftover cooked collard greens, drained if resting in liquid)

1 leftover “Texas Pete” smoked sausage*

Leftover crumbs from the bottom of a bag of Ghost Pepper potato chips from Trader Joe’s (c’mon, you have this, don’t you?)


*Notes

Orrechiette is a small pasta shape, and I happened to have a half-box of it. Its name translates to “little ears” in Italian, and it can easily be swapped out for another small shape of pasta, such as elbows or rotini—essentially, you want a shape that will grab hold of your delicious cheese sauce. I’ve noticed that the popular pasta shapes have been in scarce supply, which makes this a fun time to try new ones!

I had cheddar in abundance in my deli drawer, but of course any cheese that melts well would work. Most of the time, I gather up all the scraps and bits and throw them in—it’s why my mac and cheese is hardly ever the same twice.

The smoked sausage was a lone straggler from a meal Les had grilled up a few nights before. Smoked sausage has a really firm texture (think kielbasa), and this one in particular was seasoned before smoking with Texas Pete sauce.


Here’s a visual run-through for you. Because it was leftovers, it made enough to feed the two of us for dinner, with a bonus portion of mac and greens without the sausage.


Instructions

  1. Melt butter, cook flour until bubbly, add milk and whisk until smooth. Melt American cheese into the sauce and whisk until smooth. Add grated cheddar, whisk until smooth.
  2. Use immersion blender to emulsify cheese into an ultra-smooth mixture. Season with smoked black pepper.
  3. Cut smoked sausage into bite sized pieces, cook in small hot skillet to crisp up the edges of the sausage.
  4. Cook pasta to “early al dente” stage. It will soften further in the oven with the cheese sauce. Add finished pasta to cheese sauce, add cooked collard greens and stir until evenly combined.
  5. Layer mac & cheese in ramekins with the crispy sausage bits, top with crushed potato chip crumbs. Bake at 350° F for 30 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly and top is lightly browned with crisp edges.

I made ours in individual serving ramekins, and put the rest in a small casserole we can use for lunch sides later in the week.

Does this really even need words?

From the oven, the mac and cheese is hearty and satisfying, with an ultra-creamy sauce and occasional bites of crispy smoked sausage. And the savory collards add another level of flavor, not to mention the nutritional value they bring to the table.

It’s creamy, but still has so much interesting texture, thanks to the sausage, collards and spicy potato chip crumbs. If I hadn’t made it myself, nobody would convince me it was made from leftovers.

Now, if I could only plan ahead to come up with these exact leftovers, because I sure would like to make this dish again. Of course, who knows what will be taking up space in the fridge next week.

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Mac and Cheese

It’s one of the world’s most beloved comfort foods. From the blue box variety with the envelope of “cheese” powder to the saltine crumb-topped church potluck kind, macaroni and cheese isn’t particularly sophisticated—it’s just a dish full of noodles, cheese and milk. I have a few ideas why it endures as a favorite:

Everyone likes it
Okay, maybe not everyone. Folks with celiac disease or dairy allergies don’t. Nor would a vegan. But bring it to a dinner party and you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a home run.

It satisfies all our primal cravings
If science is correct—that humans are hard-wired to crave fats, carbs and salt—well, this food ticks all the boxes.

It’s versatile and adaptable
Like an essential “little black dress,” you can modify a good mac and cheese recipe up or down to suit the occasion. A stove-top version is great for a quick weeknight dinner and an embellished baked casserole version rocks for a family reunion. Many upscale restaurants have taken it even further by addition of fancy-pants ingredients such as lobster and truffles.

It’s easy to make with ingredients you probably already have
This has never been more important, as we are all looking for ways to make satisfying meals without one more run to the grocery store.

It reheats well
In the oven, on the stove top or even in the microwave. That is, if you actually have leftovers.

There are a million “best ever” mac and cheese recipes out there, but taste is subjective so I’m not going to make that claim here. This really is about the cheese sauce, and your technique can make or break your dish. I’ll admit that I hardly ever make this dish the same way twice. I change up the type of pasta depending on what’s in the pantry, and I use whatever leftover bits and pieces of cheese we have in the deli drawer at the time. But the main formula is the same and each step has a purpose. In case you’re wondering:

What is the best cheese for macaroni and cheese?

I like to start with American cheese, which is processed with salts and enzymes for super melting ability. If you are averse to the idea of American cheese (first of all, why? And read this), or if you just don’t have any, you may substitute a lesser amount of real cream cheese, which also has some stabilizers for a creamier sauce, but it’s bland so you’ll need to season it more. The rest of the cheese is your choice, but go with something that melts well: medium to sharp cheddar, Monterey jack, Havarti, Gouda, fontina, gruyere or even a bit of brie (without the rind) are delicious. Avoid super-stretchy cheeses such as mozzarella or Swiss and hard or crumbly cheeses such as feta, parmesan and manchego. Also, freshly shredded cheese is best. Pre-packaged shreds are coated with modified starch substance that keeps the cheese from clumping in the bag. Guess what else it does? It prevents even melting.

What kind of pasta is best for macaroni and cheese?

Consider mainly shape and texture, but if you’re looking to step up your game, also peek at the ingredients. Pasta made with “durum” or “semolina” flour (same thing, two names) provides a richer, deeper flavor than “enriched wheat” flour. If you like whole grain, that’s fine, too. Look for shapes with curves, nooks and crannies to grab onto your creamy cheese sauce. Elbows are classic, but rotini, fusilli, orecchiette, ditalini, and shells are all going to work well. Look for pasta labeled as “bronze cut,” which has a rougher texture, ensuring even greater hold on the cheese sauce.

What is the best way to cook pasta?

No matter how much pasta you’re cooking, use a large pot, at least 6 quarts. There’s a very scientific reason for this, but suffice to say it gives the pasta room to move so it doesn’t stick and clump together. Add kosher salt once the water is boiling. Adding it too early could damage the surface of the pot. Don’t be stingy with the salt; use about a tablespoon, and don’t worry—most of that salt will end up going down the drain. Regardless of what you’ve “always been told,” do not add oil to the water. It doesn’t prevent a boil-over and it does not prevent the pasta from sticking. On the contrary, it hinders your sauce from clinging to the cooked pasta. For the same reason, don’t rinse your cooked pasta.

Ready to get cooking?

Still as creamy as can be, and ready to serve.

Follow along, but by all means flex my basic recipe to suit your taste and your inventory. The best part of cooking is making it your own.


Ingredients & Tools

3 Tbsp. butter (salted or unsalted)

½ cup finely chopped onion (I like sweet, but use Spanish, shallots, white, red or whatever)

3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk (see sidebar notes)

About 8 oz. real American cheese (the kind sold by the pound in the deli, not the pre-wrapped slices)

2 packed cups good melting cheese, freshly shredded (see sidebar notes)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

¼ tsp. white pepper

¼ tsp. dry mustard powder

12 oz. box good quality pasta (see sidebar notes)

One more tool you’ll need…

A 2-quart covered casserole dish, if you should decide to go one step further (better) and finish your mac and cheese in the oven. In memory of my maternal grandmother, who taught me all the basics of cooking, I’m using this beautiful vintage casserole. Gram gave this to me many years ago, when I moved into my first apartment. I simply LOVE this dish!


Instructions – the Béchamel (fancy French word for “cream sauce”)

Over medium low heat, melt butter in your heavy-bottomed saucepan and add onions, simmering very slowly until they are soft and translucent. Do not rush this step. You don’t want the onions to brown, only to soften. This step should take about 6 to 8 minutes. Get the rest of your ingredients lined up, because it will go quickly from here.

When onions are soft, season with salt and pepper then sprinkle flour over them and stir to coat well. Increase the heat to medium and cook until bubbly and just turning golden.

Add milk slowly but all at once, whisking constantly to create a smooth mixture. Add dry mustard and white pepper and continue to cook over medium heat until mixture is just simmering and slightly thickened. Add cubes of American cheese and whisk until melted and uniform consistency.

Add shredded cheese, one cup at a time, and whisk after each addition until smooth. Adjust salt and pepper to taste, remove from heat. At this point, you have a lovely creamy cheese sauce.

Want to take it up a notch to pure decadence? Use an immersion blender to whip the sauce into a completely smooth and silky consistency. Either way is fine, but if you have the stick blender, I highly recommend it.


Instructions – the Pasta

Fill your stockpot with cold tap water and place over medium-high heat until water comes to a boil. Add a generous spoonful (about a tablespoon) of kosher salt and stir to dissolve. You have one shot at seasoning your macaroni; don’t miss it. Do not add oil to the cooking water.

Add the pasta to the pot all at once and stir immediately to prevent sticking. Cook according to package instructions for “al dente” or “firm” texture. You don’t want the pasta to be too soft or it will become mushy later when you bake it with the cheese sauce. Drain pasta in a colander, shaking to rid all excess water, but do not rinse it.

Instructions – Assembling for Baking

Combine sauce and pasta together in the cooking pot, folding gently to incorporate everything into a nice even mixture. This may seem overly cheesy, but please use all the cheese sauce. Remember that during the baking time, a lot of the sauce will be wiggling its way to the inside of your pasta shapes. More is better! Spoon into a buttered casserole dish and let cool slightly while you preheat the oven to 350° F. Cover and bake about 40 minutes then remove cover and bake 20 minutes more. Enjoy!

I love the baked-on cheesy crust that forms on oven mac and cheese.
You can hear and feel how gooey and creamy the sauce is, from the first spoonful!

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