Pub Night: Buffalo Wing Macaroni and Cheese
Did you make New Years resolutions a few weeks ago? You know the ones, right? I’m going to lose some weight, start going to the gym five times a week, drink more water, drink less…everything else, work moderate hours and quit smoking. Well, we’re in the third week of January, so you’re either doing rather well and feeling quite virtuous with your lifestyle change, or you fell off the wagon on January 15th and decided that resolutions are good, but dairy fat is better. If you’re in the latter group: welcome, my new found friend. This recipe is dedicated to you.
Is there anything that screams of pub grub more than a home made macaroni and cheese bake or a pound of hot wings? Pour me a pint and call me a pitcher, because these are two great things that go great together and that was more than enough incentive for me to brush aside the bowl of heart-healthy broth and noodles that I was planning to make on Sunday night. I mean, it was a Sunday night during football playoffs and Mike had taken up residence on the couch downstairs. I could hear him bellowing angrily at the TV and pinting it up with gusto as I stood in the kitchen wondering what to make. Sure, I could have forged ahead with my Japanese noodle bowl, and he would have eaten it, but I’m rather convinced that it would have marked the day that his love for me diminished ever so slightly. Because I’m a sucker for praise and adoration, two things which Mike provides effusively when he’s been into the suds and I don’t make him eat salad, I opted for the Man Pleasing dinner: cheese, chicken, hot sauce and carbs.
This is a great dish to get into your rotation as football season winds to a close, because it’s perfect for potlucks, parties, or gluttonous nights that you wish you could forget. It is also worth noting that so far I’ve had to correct myself twice for writing “foodball”. You can tell where my priorities lie, and they’re not with the game……
So let’s talk about macaroni and cheese. For years I was convinced that home made mac’n'cheese was abhorrent, because it generally fell into one of three major faux pas:
1. Bland and flavorless. The pasta was beige, the sauce was beige, and the very flavor itself was just…beige.
2. Greasy noodles twisted away in oleaginous torment. The sauce had separated and congealed, with each bite coating your oily lips in an insidious film.
3. Dry and dense. Mac’n'cheese should be eaten with a fork, not a fork and a knife.
I refused to make macaroni casserole for years, thinking that the best it had to offer still wasn’t particularly good, until one day it dawned on me that it probably COULD be good. Maybe the sauce COULD be creamy, saucy and rich instead of greasy, goopy or dry. And flavor! Oh, just imagine – a cheese sauce with flavor! Would miracles never cease? This is macaroni and cheese the way I like it. The sauce is creamy and full flavored, the ratio of sauce-to-noodle keeps the dish moist rather than dense, and it contains enough cheese to blind a cow. Perfect.
Buffalo Wing Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 6 football fans as a meal, or 10-12 as a hearty side dish
- 450 g (1 lb) dry elbow macaroni noodles
- 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
- 4 ribs celery
- 3 small or 2 medium carrots
- 1 medium yellow cooking onion
- 4 large cloves garlic
- 1/4 cup + 1 tbsp butter, as well as additional butter to grease the casserole dish
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1.5 tbsp Dijon or hot mustard
- 3 cups skim milk *
- 1/8 tsp nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
- 1/4 tsp cayenne **
- 1.5 tsp dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp dried basil
- 300 g (2.75 cups grated) extra old sharp white cheddar cheese
- 250 g (2.25 cups grated) Pecorino Romano (or Grana Padano) cheese
- 1/4 cup + 3 tbsp Frank’s Red Hot (or your favorite hot wing sauce)
- 1.5 cups coarse bread crumbs (or 2 stale sandwich buns)
- salt and pepper to taste
* Ha! Skim milk, indeed. As if it matters when you factor in the 6 cups of cheese. You could use 2% for a richer sauce, but skim is what we normally have at home and it does the trick just fine.
** The finished dish is about a medium in terms of spiciness. That is to say, it’s mild enough to put on the buffet table without too much fear of retribution from the Sallys. However, if you want a spicier meal (to put the ‘hot’ in hot wing) you could increase the cayenne to 1/2 or even 3/4 tsp).
Rinse the chicken breasts under cold water and pat them dry. Season the meat with salt and pepper before pouring 1/4 cup of Frank’s Red Hot (or your favorite hot wing sauce) over top. Let the meat soak up the flavor for at least an hour at room temperature, but overnight in the fridge doesn’t hurt.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
Cover the baking dish tightly with aluminum foil and bake the chicken for about 25 minutes, or until it is springy to the touch and just cooked through. You want the chicken to stay juicy because dry chicken is just fowl, cheese sauce or not.
When the chicken is cool enough to handle, chop or tear the meat into bite sized pieces. Return the pieces to juices and sauce which are collected in the baking pan and add the additional hot sauce. Toss the chicken to coat each piece.
Increase the oven heat to 375ºF.
In the mean time, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and stir in a heaping tablespoon of kosher salt. Boil the macaroni noodles for about 8 minutes, or until they’re just slightly underdone and a bit firm or toothy in the center. Immediately drain the noodles and rinse them well under ice cold water to wash away any residual starch. Yes, I know, a thousand Italian grandmothers just felt a shiver go up their spines, but when it comes to macaroni and cheese this will actually help the finished dish. As the pasta dish bakes the noodles will absorb a touch more liquid and the sauce will thicken, but if you don’t rinse off the starch the dish will be rather gummy, or worse – dried out.
Finely dice the celery, carrots and onions into wee chunks that are barely 1/4 inch in size. Mince the garlic while you’re at it.
In a large sauce pan melt one tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Add the vegetables and let them cook for 3-5 minutes until the onions are semi-translucent and the carrots are tender-crisp. The vegetables need to soften slightly, but you don’t want to turn them into mush.
Spoon the vegetables out of the saucepan and into a bowl.
Using the same sauce pan (unless you’re one of those people who enjoys having extra dishes to wash) melt the remaining 1/4 cup of butter over medium heat. As soon as the butter is melted add the flour and stir briskly together. Let this cook for a minute or two until it starts to bubble, which is insurance that you’ve eliminated any potential for chalky flour flavor, but be sure to catch it before it browns. Stir in the Dijon mustard.
As soon as the Dijon is incorporated, start to slowly pour in the milk one half cup at a time, whisking constantly and vigorously during each addition to avoid any lumps. With your first milky addition the sauce will seize and become righteously thick, but as you continue to slowly stream in the milk it will thin so quickly that you’ll wonder why you panicked in the first place. Because yes, regardless of how many times I’ve made a basic béchamel or cream sauce (read: MANY, many times), I still always panic just a bit with my first addition of fluid, and then again when all the liquid is in but before it starts to thicken up. Such is life.
When all of the milk is added you can grate in the nutmeg (or use ground) and add the oregano, basil and cayenne. Add a healthy dose of freshly ground black pepper but hold off on the salt until the sauce has reduced because the cheese can be quite salty.
Turn the heat down to medium low and let the mixture cook for 8-12 minutes, whisking regularly to prevent the bottom from scorching and the top from making a skin. When the sauce is thick enough to form a nice coating on the back of your spoon it is ready for the cheese.
Whisk all 2.75 cups of the grated Cheddar and 1.25 cups of the grated Pecorino Romano into the béchamel a handful at a time, only adding more cheese when the previous addition is smooth and combined. Season the sauce with salt to taste (a fair bit of salt is needed for flavor, probably about 1 tsp, but don’t go overboard until you’ve tasted it). If you feel that a bit more heat wouldn’t hurt, add a pinch or two of additional cayenne.
Stir the vegetables back into the sauce and pour the mixture over the macaroni. When the macaroni is well coated (it should look slightly soupy) and the vegetables are evenly dispersed, stir in the chicken and all accumulated juices.
Now then, I haven’t said a peep about the breadcrumbs for the gratin topping! I always have some stale bread lying around the house, and frankly most of the time this is strategy and I hoard those heels and extra buns for exactly a time like this. The bread I had was about two days old, so I toasted it in the oven for 10 minutes while the chicken was baking. If it was older than that, I would have just used it as it was. Pulse the bread in a food processor until you have coarse crumbs with a bit of texture.
Butter a large, deep casserole pan, like a 9×13″ dish with sides that are at least 4″ high. If you don’t have such a pan, or you managed to leave it at someone’s house during an ill-fated potluck, two smaller ones will do the trick. Be generous with the butter because you don’t want the cheesy macaroni to stick.
Spoon the macaroni mixture into the casserole dish and coat with the breadcrumbs and the remaining cup of grated Pecorino Romano.
Bake the macaroni for approximately 30 minutes or until the breadcrumbs are toasted and the dish is deliciously oozy around the edges.
Now that’s what I call footballer food. Creamy and gooey mac’n'cheese with the biting tang of hot Buffalo wings. It sated me to such a degree that Mike was able to coax me into watching the last half hour of Sunday’s game, and if THAT’S not impressive, I don’t know what is.
I’m not too proud to keep the bottle of Frank’s on the table when dinner comes, because chiquita likes it hot and an extra splash or two does me just fine.
When I do a “Pub Night” article, I usually try to lighten up regular ol’ pub grub for the family kitchen. But this time? Not so much. This has pure beer swilling pleasure written all over it, and to hell with cholesterol. After all, the Superbowl only happens once a year, so you might as well go whole hog (or chicken) and enjoy it!