If there was a food equivalent of original sin, I think I’ve discovered it.
Long have I had the notion of creating a gourmet version of a childhood comfort food so many of us grew up on … create something very very adult.
The inspiration for this comes from watching Gordon Ramsay several years ago challenge his chefs to take a childhood memory and create something gourmet with it. His own personal example was reinventing his Mom’s Mac & Cheese. Then, a few years ago, my best friend treated me to an unforgettable dinner at La Queue de Cheval in Montreal, ranked one of the best steakhouses in the world … and one of the sides we had with our kobe beef rib steaks was the most jaw dropping decadent Mac & Cheese I’d ever imagined or tasted … until tonight.
My ambition was the following:
- Create a dish that was akin to fondue with pasta
- Create a superlatively adult dish
- Bring local ingredients in where it made sense
In order to accomplish #1, the fondue effect, I chose my cheeses very carefully, including some cheeses that had strength and a sharper character, others that were creamy, and some that would create those tell-tale strings so true to fondue. The secret ingredient in this was also a dram of alcohol … inspired by the Kirsch that comes in some authentic Swiss fondues. Beyond some stronger cheeses and the dram of wine, what would make #2 more adult than some Italian bacon — pancetta — and then giving it a bit of a kick with some jalapeños? And finally, #3 was really more a principle in how I tackled #1 and #2. That is I chose a the creamy, nutty, and rich Oka artisan cheese, a “local” cheese maker situated between Ottawa and Montreal and which was founded by an order of Trappist monks in the 1890s … and I also returned to the St-Albert cheese curds I infamously used in my Cranberry-Maple Poutine to layer in unique tooth feel and some decadent mouthfuls of cheese throughout. Staying “local” also factored into my choice to replace the cherry liquor (Kirsch) with a local “ice wine” from Henry of Pelham estates … which is more accurately a “late harvest” wine than ice wine, a distinction which is important because it isn’t as sweet … and I wanted the hint of sweetness and wine without really layering it on. Wow, that was a good idea …. If you can’t get your hands on a true “late harvest” wine, then I’d recommend a good Sauterne instead.
Finally, yes, these pictures are of a gluten-free Mac & Cheese. I fed it to 6 people and none of them guessed it was a bi-coloured quinoa macaroni (from GoGo Quinoa) that had wheat-eaters and celiacs heading out to buy some. As well, while I’ve not had success with gluten-free béchamels that need to rise (like in my moussaka), as a sauce, it works just as well to use another starch like cornstarch.
A couple of final cooking notes: were I to make it again, I think I’d reduce the butter and the “flour” (or starch) or omit it entirely. In truth, I hummed-and-hawed over this part a lot, whether to make a traditional béchamel sauce (as is traditional for Mac & Cheese), thin it instead and reduce the starch, or omit the starch entirely. I choose for a thin béchamel because I wanted the dish to be as creamy as possible. The fact is, it was perfect out of the oven and eaten hot and ‘fresh.’ But, to reheat it, the sauce thickened more, the milk fat separated, and while it wasn’t at all “dry,” it wasn’t the consistency on day-two as I had fondly remembered. Truthfully, there may be no real fix for this. Cream, butter, and cheese don’t reheat well with pasta. However, the flavours were still decadent on day 2 … nothing lost there. As well, for serving and neatness, I prepared this in individual ramekins as you’ll see. You can easily make this in a lasagna pan or casserole, but just note that a larger container may need 5 minutes more for cooking. The broiling at the end is optional, and depends on your oven, but I recommend it to crisp up the cheese a bit … this is versus leaving the Mac & Cheese in the oven longer to create the same effect. The difference? Longer cooking will increase the chance of fat separation from the cheese. So note: Don’t overcook!
Finally a note on preparing the cheese: use a kitchen scale would be my advice. Measuring most cheeses by ‘volume’ is an exceptionally inexact science because you can’t pack the cheese (this defeats the purpose of grating it). If you don’t have a kitchen scale, well, you can either eyeball it and hope … or ask the folks at your cheese counter to measure you out the right weights when you purchase them.
Ultimately, I hope you enjoy this as much as I did and can put aside your doctor’s orders about cholesterol for a day and just dive in and enjoy a sinful, delicious creation.
Prep time: 30-40 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 50-60 minutes
Macaroni and Six-Cheeses … with pancetta crumble
- 1 package (16 ounces/454g) macaroni
- 1 cup (250mL), roughly 1 medium onion, finely minced
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1-2 jalapeños, finely minced (optional)
- 4 oz (115g) pancetta, divided (optional)
→ half goes in the sauce, the other half is dry-crumbled for garnish
- 3 tablespoons (45mL) unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons (45mL) all-purpose flour
→ substitute cornstarch for gluten-free sauce
- 2 cups (500mL) heavy whipping cream
- 1 cup (250mL) 2% milk
- 1/2 cup (125mL) late harvest ice-wine
- 1 teaspoon (5mL) pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon (2.5mL) dry mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon (1mL) Kosher salt
- 8 ounces (225g) 2-year old cheddar, grated
- 6 ounces (170g) gruyere, finely grated
- 6 ounces (170g) fresh cheese curds
- 4 ounces (115g) Oka cheese, grated
→ or substitute Gouda
- 4 ounces (115g) Fontina, grated
- 2 ounces (55g) (1 cup), Parmigiano Reggiano finely grated
- Preheat oven to 400°F.
- Cook pasta according to package directions until al dente. Rinse well under cold water to arrest the cooking.
- Meanwhile, separately grate the Parmesan and set aside. Measure out the cheese curds, and set aside. Then, together grate the final three cheeses (Oka, cheddar, and gruyere) and mix together.
- In a large pot, heat butter over medium-high heat.
Add onion; cook and stir for 4 minutes or until slightly golden.
Add half the pancetta, and fry for another 2 minutes until pancetta is cooked.
Add garlic and jalapeños and sauté for another minute.
Stir in flour (or cornstarch) until blended and continue to cook for another minute or 2 two until the flour/starch starts to swell and rise.
Then add the late harvest wine ….
Gradually stir in the milk until it thickens.
Add cream, ground mustard, pepper and salt.
Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Cook and stir for 2 minutes or until thickened.
- Reduce heat to medium-low. Add the Parmesan and 1 cup of the mixed cheeses. Remove from heat.
- Fry up the remaining pancetta until crisp. Drain on paper towel and set aside. When cool, chop up into “bacon bits.”
- When the pasta noodles are done, pour in the cheese sauce. Stir in the cheese curds until everything is well mixed.
- Layer in half the noodles into the casseroles and then layer with half the remaining cheese. Pour in the remaining noodles and sauce.Top with bacon and then the remaining cheese.
- Bake, uncovered, at 375° for 10-15 minutes or until cheese has melted. If it hasn’t turned a golden brown on top, place macaroni and cheese under the broiler for a few minutes, watching carefully. Remove and let cool before serving.
Wine Pairing: Serve with with a semi-dry Riesling or a new world Sauvignon Blanc.