Beer Mac and Cheese
I have never met a man who did not obsess over macaroni and cheese. Didn’t crave it like it was mother’s milk, didn’t need it so bad that he’d even figured out how to make it himself, even if that meant “making” a box of fluorescent orange-colored stuff. The same goes for women, sometimes. But I, for one, never thought terribly much of the combination of pasta and cheese, bound in a casserole dish. Until I tried this version, made by simmering some ale into a sautee of freshly dug shallots, and showered with all types of garden herbs.
Beer and lots and lots of fresh herbs, it seems, elevates this dish from homely to “grown-up” food. But the classic elements — mac and cheese — still make everyone in the room happy. Give it a try sometime, and let me know how it went over. The guys at Sixpoint liked it alright.
The impetus began with a cache of leftover wedges of cheese, from that launch lunch party. So many people had brought cheese, and in such distinct and delicious varieties. There was a huge chunk of aged cheddar in the aftermath of the lunch. It was so crumbly in texture that the plate beneath it was littered an inch deep in crumbs. I thought the best use for them would be something like macaroni and cheese. A good macaroni and cheese has a variety of cheeses, anyway. So it’s a great vehicle for using up these common party leftovers. This macaroni had a combination of that cheddar, some aged Gouda, Camembert, and a wedge of something else.
To start, I pulled up some shallots from a container in the garden. These had been simply been sunk into the soil a couple months ago, and covered with fresh compost. Pretty soon, green shoots shot out from the soil, and continued to grow until strong and thick, like big scallion tops. Shallots are evidently very easy to grow; I’ve never grown them before, and was unsure of when to harvest them. I’ll bet mine could grow a little longer, but I decided to pull a couple of them early, just to be able to use their still-green shoots as well as the considerably mature bulbs both. Check out more shallot growing tips here and here.
Once the shallot bulbs were finely chopped and sizzling in a pan with butter, I went ahead and added handfuls of garden herbs — rosemary, sage, thyme, lemon thyme, parsley, even a little bit of lavender. It began to smell really good in the kitchen. Instead of making a basic bechamel sauce next by adding flour and whisking in milk, I added flour and stirred in about a cupful of beer. The one I chose, which was handy at the time, happened to The Klank. The pale brown mixture began to bubble after a few stirs, and thickened into an even better-smelling sauce. After this, whole milk was added, and brought just to a boil, followed by the assortment of grated cheeses.
Here’s the finished cheese sauce, just after pouring into a greased pan of macaroni. A good rule of thumb with making any saucy sort of casserole is to make sure that all ingredients are submerged in the sauce (but try not to go right up to the rim, or it’ll overflow in the oven).
Of course, there was leftover bread from that launch lunch party, too. So I cut off a chunk and crumbled it in my hands before sprinkling it on top. Here’s how it looked before sliding into the oven.
Here’s how it looked when ready to eat.
And here’s the recipe:
Beer Mac and Cheese
(makes 6-8 servings)
1 lb elbow or any shaped macaroni, cooked in salted water to al dente
2 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup beer — it’s up to you what type
3 cups grated cheeses — again, choose your adventure
1/2 chopped fresh herbs — your choice!
2 shallots, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large skillet or heavy-bottomed pot, heat the butter and add the onions. Season with salt and pepper and sautee on medium-low 4-6 minutes, or until softened and translucent. Add the herbs. Add another tablespoon of butter and the flour and stir well until evenly incorporated. Add the beer and stir constantly until mixture is thickened and bubbly (increase heat to medium-high or high). Add the milk and stir occasionally until it just begins to bubble. Remove from heat and add the cheeses; stir until melted.
Grease a casserole dish with the remaining butter and add the cooked and drained macaroni. Pour the sauce mixture in and stir to coat evenly. Top with optional breadcrumbs and bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown on top.