Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Baked Bacon Mac & Cheese

I've made baked mac & cheese twice.  Both times, I was under the watchful eye of Schmambs.  But one Sunday, in an effort to reduce the number of times of eating out during the week, I thought I would try making baked mac & cheese.  Solo.  Ohmygoodness.  I can't even tell you how many text messages flew back and forth between Schmambs and myself as I perused up and down the aisles of the grocery store hoping to pick up everything I would need for the recipe.  The first time we made it, we used a recipe off All Recipes.  It was phenomenal.  But then Schmambs discovered Alton Brown's recipe on Food Network and I mean, how do you say no to Panko?  That's right.  You don't!

The first step is to start cooking the pasta while you make the cheese sauce.  I sort of had to because I only have one big pot and I needed that for cooking the pasta and making the cheese sauce.  With the pasta cooking, I thought I would get the liquid ingredients started  so that all I would have to add was the cheese once the pasta was finished cooking.  

One of the things I love about homemade mac & cheese is that you, the chef, can determine the thickness of your sauce by creating a roux.  For those of you who don't know what a roux is, Merriam-Webster defines it as "a cooked mixture of flour and fat used as a thickening agent in a soup or a sauce".  In vivz terms, it's a thickener consisting of butter, flour, and some sort of liquid.  In the case of baked mac & cheese, the liquid is milk.  Once the butter is melted in the saucepan, you whisk in the flour.  As per the recipe, along with the flour, I added mustard powder.  It sounds a bit odd...mustard powder in baked mac & cheese...really?!  But it gives the cheese sauce a nice flavor while not being overwhelming.  And since I forgot the onion at the store (it must've been all the texting back and forth that I got distracted!) I substituted with onion powder.

flour, mustard powder, onion powder, salt

One thing that surprised me was that the recipe called for milk and not cream.  The other recipe that we had tried required cream.  A lot of it!  Alton seems to know what he's doing, so I figured it might be a good idea to just follow his directions since he was the only help I was going to get this time around.  In went the milk and then all of a sudden I found myself with a saucepan full of watery milky yellow stuff.  The directions told me to let it simmer, so I did while I took the pasta off the stove and drained it.


Now while the sauce was getting all simmered and cooked and stuff, I decided to take the time to make some bacon.  Somewhere along the line, I had decided I was going to try this recipe with bacon.  Why?  Because I'm a firm believer that bacon makes everything better.  I eat meals which consist of bacon.  Nothing else.  And I think I've mentioned before, I enjoy mnicrowave bacon, which I'm not sure if that's a good thing to admit, so let's move on.  I took the shortcut of making microwave bacon because I was on a time crunch and because I still haven't perfected the art of making bacon on the stove.  A story for another time.  I couldn't help but salivate while looking at my plate of bacon.  It took a lot of will power to not eat any all of it while I prepared the cheese sauce. 


As you can see, the cheese sauce turned out a bright orange/yellow and it was melty and gooey.  I mixed in the elbow macaroni in the sauce when it was all ready and then I mixed in crumbled pieces of bacon into the pasta/sauce mixture.  Not that it needed it, I let the mixture sit for a few minutes while I prepared the panko topping.  I melted butter in a skillet and then mixed in about a cup of panko breadcrumbs.  I'm not sure if I overestimated my skillet's abilities, but the topping didn't end up like it should have.  The butter did not evenly distribute throughout the panko so it caused some of the breading to eventually just sprinkle off, despite being baked into the mac and cheese.  I also did go a little overboard with loading the tops of the mac & cheese with panko.  I guess there is such thing as too much when it comes to breadcrumbs.  The lessons we learn.

I ended up making two separate pans of the mac and cheese because a) I used LARGE elbow macaroni so it took up a lot more space and b) I'm a single young professional and there's only so much food i can consume before it goes bad.  So I was going to drop a pan off with Schmambs & Company and have them be the guinea pigs to my cooking.  I'll admit, after giving it a whirl, I realized it was a bit bland and I could have done so much more with it.  

Baked Mac & Cheese:
(adapted from Alton Brown's recipe)

1/2 box large elbow macaroni
* 3 tablespoons butter
* 3 tablespoons flour
* 1 tablespoon powdered mustard
* 3 cups milk
* 1 tablespoon onion powder
* 1/2 teaspoon paprika
* 12 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded
* 1 teaspoon kosher salt 
* Fresh black pepper
* 8 slices of bacon, crumbled (this is only a suggestion.  use as much bacon as you want!
* 3 tablespoons butter (for the topping)
* 1 cup panko breadcrumbs (for the topping)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling water until it's "al dente".  Drain the pasta when done.  While the pasta is cooking, melt 3 tablespoons of butter in another saucepan or pot.  Whisk in the flour, mustard powder, and onion powder until it's lump-free.  Slowly mix in the milk and paprika.  Make sure everything is mixed evenly and there are no lumps.  Then let the mixture simmer for about ten minutes.
While it's simmering, cook 8 strips (or however many slices desired) of bacon.  Let the oil drain and then crumble it up.  Put aside.  Stir in the cheese (a little bit at a time) to the milky mixture.  Stir until cheese is all melted and your mixture is all gooey.   Add salt and pepper to your liking.  Then add the bacon.  Once everything is evenly mixed, pour it into the macaroni and stir until all the pasta is evenly coated.  
While you're mixing the pasta and cheese together, melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan.  When it's melted, add the panko breadcrumbs and coat it evenly with the butter.  Depending on what type of pan you're using, you may want to spray it with some sort of cooking spray.  My spray of choice is PAM.  This will keep the cheese sauce from sticking to the edge.  Once everything is done, distribute the pasta and sauce in two 8x8 pans.  I just used disposable aluminum square pans and they seemed to work fine.  Distribute the panko breadcrumbs over the macaroni in both pans.  Place pans in oven which should be 350 degrees and bake for 30 minutes.  I can usually tell it's done once the breadcrumbs start to brown.  You don't want to overcook it or you'll have dry mac & cheese.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Zuppa Toscana (Schmambs Style)

I remember the first time I had Zuppa Toscana.  It was last year when Schmambs & the clan moved back to Massachusetts from Oregon.  Before that, I had no idea what it was.  Even after Schmambs tried to explain that the Olive Garden has it on their menu.  The lightbulb above my head remained dark.  The description on All Recipes describes it as "A creamy sausage and potato soup".  The pretty much sums it up.  Cream, sausage, potato, kale, and most importantly (in my opinion) bacon.  

One cold wintry night, Schmambs was trying to figure out what to make for dinner.  "You haven't made your Zuppa Toscana in a while.", I stated.  She replied, "Well that's cause it's been too hot.  Now's the time for it."  So it was decided.  By the time I arrived after work, Schmambs had already started browning the sausage.  

After browning the sausage, she put it aside and had hubby cut a few strips of bacon and get that sizzling.  The recipe recommended six strips.  Key word, recommended.  We may have been a little more on the liberal side on the number of bacon strips we used. 

Next up came the chopping of the garlic, onions, and potatoes.  Since she is only one woman, hubby played sous chef as he chopped the potatoes and monitored the cooking of the bacon.  The onions proved to be a bigger challenge than anticipated as halfway into the task, Schmambs had to take a time out due to not being able to see.  Tears streaming down her face prompted the little one to ask, "Mommy, why are you crying?"  After a short break, Schmambs was able to finish the task while blinking back tears.


You want to cook the garlic and onions a bit before adding the rest of the ingredients to the pot, so they went in with the bacon.  After that cooked for a bit, the sausage, water, and cream were added to the pot.  I'll admit, it wasn't the most appetizing site.  Just a big pot of...white water...with stuff in it.  But I know that it's not how a food looks when it's being prepared, it's the final presentation that matters.  And judging by the way her kitchen smelled, I knew we were in for a treat.


While the soup was being brought to a boil, Schmambs started chopping up the kale.  It doesn't take long to cook - you still want to retain a little bit of crispness, and it gives the soup a bit of color.  I mean, you saw the picture above, right?  It needs a little something instead of drab white.  Chop chop chop went Schmambs.  Before I knew it, it was time to throw it into the pot and mix it in.

After letting it cook for a few minutes, dinner was ready to be served.  But wait!  Schmambs had a surprise.  She had also made mini loaves of Italian bread!  With a few spices and she even put cheese into the dough!  It was absolutely delish and went perfectly with the soup.  The little one feared the kale, but gobbled down half a loaf and then asked for more.  It was the perfect meal to warm yourself up on a cold night.

Zuppa Toscana (Schmambs Style):
adapted from the recipe on All Recipes 

* 1 lb Italian sausage removed from castings
* 4-5 Yukon gold potatoes
* 1 medium sized onion
* 6-10 slices of bacon
* 3-4 loves of garlic
* 2 Cups of kale
* 1 Quart of chicken broth
* 1/3 Cup cream

Brown sausage in pan or pot.  Put aside.  Cut bacon strips into bite size pieces and cook in pot that you will be cooking the soup in.  (This is so you don't have to dirty as many pots while making this dish.)  While bacon is cooking, chop up garlic, onion, and potatoes.  When bacon is fully cooked, add in the onion and the garlic and cook until onions are clear.  Then add in the chicken broth, cream, and potatoes.  Let it simmer for 15 minutes while you chop up the kale.  Mix in the kale and simmer for another 4-5 minutes.  Serve.