On Cooking With Friends: Chicago Edition #1 – BA’s Best Lasagna

I was hoping there would be an opportunity for me to host some friends and cook with them, and thankfully, when my friend Melissa asked for help in making bachelorette goodies/crafts, I figured we’d go ahead and make dinner too! We decided that we would make lasagna! Mm mm yay!!! There was one recipe in particular that stood out to me, because, if we were going to do lasagna, that means we were going to make pretty much everything from scratch, except the noodles. That’s a little more time consuming than I was quite ready to take on, and I figured we were doing pretty much everything else by hand, so we can sneak in the premade pasta noodles for this one).

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Lasagna for me is one of the main dishes that remind me of my late grandmother, following her ever famous Cake Box Cookies, which caused everyone to maneuver around the house by way of the kitchen and the Cookie Monster jar that contained all her baking efforts. Whenever my family would visit her and my grandfather in Colorado Springs, she always had a variety of family meals planned, including her infamous Tuna Casserole—one of the only things she ever made that no one really liked, and as a result, left us plenty of leftovers during our stay—and frozen Lasagna (Stoffer’s, always Stoffer’s). It fed the army that is my dad’s side of the family, and there were hardly ever any leftovers because that was the night were you supposed to eat more than your fill and remain seated at the dining table, cradling your food baby, as you caught up on current life news and reminisced about old stories you never really had to be there for to enjoy. Lasagna was also one of the harder things for my brothers to say when they were small, calling it “Bah-sagna,” their little faces contorted in effort as their little pink tongues tried to get the “L” sound just right, only to start giggling hysterically because the new word they made sounded so funny. We actually still call it Basagna in my family, and everyone still laughs at it. Basagna…it does sound a little funny when you say it out loud. Bah-Sahn-yaaaaaaa.

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But I digress. Lasagna, I think, is one of the trickiest things to serve, let alone, the trickiest things to make where EVERYONE likes it…how many of you dear readers don’t like ricotta (Frankie & Melissa: ME ME ME!)? How many of you don’t like the “no-bake” noodles? (Me: ME ME ME!) How many just don’t like lasagna in general (No one? Phew, that’s a relief)? And I bet it’s not because lasagna isn’t a good dish overall, but rather—and I will attest to this—it’s how certain family members and favorite restaurants have interpreted and served the lasagna we have constantly been exposed to. That immediate, and further exposure, is what shapes the foods we like, the foods we don’t, and foods we can never eat again. But on the flipside, what one of us doesn’t like, another may love. For example, my Mamaw (my mom’s mom) LOVES her lasagna to have a lot of meat sauce and a ton of cheese, whereas my main problem with ordering lasagna out is when they SMOTHER it in cheese to the point where that’s all I can taste. And if there’s not enough meat sauce, Mamaw’s got a few words to say about that…but that only proves my point. Lasagna is a hard dish to really get universally right because tastes are so different.

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That being said, since the majority of folks I was actually making this dish for did NOT like ricotta, I chose Bon Appetit’s Best Lasagna, which has a bechamel sauce with parmesan instead of ricotta, which makes this recipe even more of a win-win for those who were going to enjoy it! The one thing I will say is this: the sauce says it takes 3 hours to make, and it kind of does by their standard, HOWEVER, my main recommendation is go with your favorite bolognese and call it a day. Their sauce is good, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think I will ever spend three hours the night before to make it again, when I can spend 30-45 minutes making my own bolognese that I know everyone has enjoyed eating before.

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I will say this: EVERYONE loved it. Honest. I had one serving of leftovers at the end of the night because the girls who ate with me wanted to take some home with them too! I honestly believe the bechamel was the main reason this lasagna worked out so well, but I also believe the bite of the noodles (which held up significantly to the weight of the sauce and the gooey-ness of the cheese so beautifully) and the equal balance between noodle, sauce, and cheese, was what made this a winning dish. If you’re also a lasagna skeptic, then give this recipe a try and see if it doesn’t change your mind.  — Cooking Maggie


Best Lasagna Recipe from Bon Appetit

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On Cooking with Alex #3: Bruschetta Bananza!

About two weeks ago, Alex & I changed up the game plan because of the warmer weather and decided to make a couple different bruschetta’s as part of a delicious and fairly light Sunday lunch/dinner! What a way to spend a Sunday afternoon! Not to mention that Frankie & I spent the evening on our porch for a really delightful dinner once he was done with work! Also, these are probably the prettiest things (savory wise) that I’ve ever made!

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I mean, LOOK AT THAT! And almost all of them were spot on! The only one that didn’t QUITE work out as we wanted was the Peach with Whipped Goat Cheese, only because peaches weren’t in season. Alex couldn’t find fresh plums, which is what I used to sub out the peach, and even then it was really bitter, and so she bought canned peaches. I seared off my plums, which helped add a new depth of flavor, but was still a little bitter, and was an odd flavor with the cheese. Alex had a similar experience with her peaches, which she left as they were, and it just wasn’t where it needed to be, so we believe, yes you do need a fresh peach, and it should be a juicy one that is sweet so it will better offset the tang of the goat’s cheese.

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Then there was the traditional Bruschetta that I had presented ages ago (relinked below) that I happened to find some heirlooms for, and that was the RIGHT decision to make. Romas/On-The-Vine are also good alternatives, BUT nothing beats the richness of an heirloom. BUT I did just notice my store is starting to carry orange and yellow tomatoes on the vine, which would be my next alternative for heirlooms. Plus, heirlooms are WAY more expensive, though you do pay for the outstanding quality, which is a plus.

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The third one we made was a bacon and onion marmalade, on top of brie, and this was a TOTAL winner! I mean, it was sweet, tangy, meaty, herbaceous (lots of thyme in there), and it was just the perfect amount of stick to the roof of your mouth kind of good, plus you had the earthy softness of the brie to break up the richness of this mouthful, and it is incredibly rich for such a small bite, but rich enough for you to want another one, then another one, then another one. Alex cooked her bacon first, then added the onion, which allowed it all to caramelize even more, whereas mine was a little lighter in color because I took my bacon out before cooking the onion, adding it all bacon in for the final few minutes. This is DEFINITELY another winner that will likely grace our next Christmas party!

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The last one on my plate is a minted smashed pea and prosciutto crostini, which I understand isn’t going to be the easiest one to make because Prosciutto isn’t always readily available, as was the case for Alex. I will say though, if you find some, make this one! This was by far the favorite (next to the regular bruschetta and bacon/onion marmalade), and I even took it one step further but drizzling a little balsamic glaze right on top, which packed a super punch! The peas were super easy to make, and the combination with the mint made it a very light and fresh bite, which paired beautifully with the subtle earthy elegance of the prosciutto, and the sweet punch of balsamic. Another winner to be sure, and honestly, you could even substitute the prosciutto for sliced ham, or even bacon (because who doesn’t like bacon?).

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All in all, these little morsels were a GREAT treat to munch on in the early afternoons of summer weekends, and I plan to try a couple more crostini recipes for possible party ideas! If you have a favorite bruschetta/crostini recipe, I would love to hear about them! I’m always looking for new ideas and would love to give a couple of your favorites a try! Hoping you’re enjoying the warmer weather wherever you are! — Cooking Maggie


Quick Fresh Brushcetta

Onion & Bacon Marmalade from Tasty Kitchen (Cook in Canuck)

Minted Pea & Prosciutto Costini from Martha Stewart

Peach Bruschetta with Whipped Goat Cheese from Life As A Strawberry

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On Christmas Parties & First Christmas Trees

I don’t know WHY I bothered trying three different grocery stores, but when it came to finding party sized samosas, spring rolls, and spanikopita, ONLY TONY’S HAD SOME! Seriously?! Ugh, and I think I may have posted about Tony’s when I was making Empanada’s and how Tony’s was the only place that sold the premade empanada wrappers…so I hereby solemnly promise, on my honor, that I will only go to Tony’s for all my International food needs. If this promise seems repetitive, my apologies, but sometimes a good reminder can go a long way. But Christmas is my favorite time of year because this is when Frankie and I throw our only party of the year, and it’s definitely a highlight! We also go ALL OUT! I mean, we’re taking catering from Spiro’s up in Waukegan, a special cocktail, a pony keg of Spotted Cow, appetizers made by yours truly, and some appetizers not made by yours truly because I have spent whole parties in the kitchen cooking and cleaning up, and sometimes, not making everything yourself is okay, especially if it means getting to spend more time with your guests, am I right?!

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This year’s menu looked like this:

Drinks: Make-Your-Own Moscow Mule’s (using antique spirit pumps filled with Tito’s, the Dog Lover’s Vodka), Spotted Cow (purchased from Tenuta’s Deli in Kenosha; their price for the keg was exceptional, even though I think their deposit is a little steep, but you get that back as soon as you return the empty keg, so only a temporary hurt on the credit card), and access to other spirits that our guests may prefer if beer and Moscow Mule’s don’t sit well with them.

Appetizers: Baked Brie with Blackberry Jam & Apricot Jam (now, these are SUPER easy to make on your own at home, BUT I happened to find two of them premade from Jewel, for a little less than I would have paid to make it from scratch, so I thought, what the heck! And most grocery stores should sell the premade bakable brie in the special cheese area), my famous Bacon Wrapped Jalapeno Poppers, standard cheese tray that included gruyere and white cheddar cheese with water crackers, and spanikopita (purchased frozen from Tony’s), chips & two kinds of salsa (pico & blended). I also had some frozen vegetarian spring rolls & Tostino’s Pizza Rolls for any 2am hunger crunches too, but ended up not needing them! And yes, I did say 2am. This year, most of our guests left at 2.30, and the final guests left at 3.30 I believe, so I guess everyone enjoyed themselves!

Dinner: Catering from Spiro’s: Make Your Own Italian Beef/Bomber’s complete with dipping au jus, bread, sweet peppers, and giardiniera; Cathy’s Baked Chicken (always a favorite and can be stripped from the bones to be made into a casserole or soup afterwards; Greek Salad; Mostaccioli (penne & red sauce). This is where we splurge the most, but it’s worth it to see everyone happy and full! And the key for us is to start saving for our party starting January 1st of every year. Also, no joke. We put a little bit away every month and whatever we have at the end, that’s our entire party budget!

Dessert: Funfetti Cupcakes (a normal addition) and Gingerbread Sheet Cake Bites with Stabilized Whipped Cream made by Ed (he had them cut into bars, but we thought bites would be better for a larger group, and then we topped the whipped cream with just a sprinkling of cinnamon), and this was an AWESOME addition that may become tradition after how well it went over with everyone! I even plan to take a crack at this myself over new years with my new Kitchen Aid Mixer, which was a fabulous Christmas present from my future in-laws, and I cannot WAIT to try that sucker out! (Recipes are linked.)

Decorations: Honest to goodness, almost EVERYTHING came from the Dollar Store. No joke because honestly, people don’t come to your parties to analyze your decorations or wonder if it’s Crate & Barrel or Pier 1. They are there to spend time with the people who matter in their lives and just be joyful! So I firmly believe that any home can look beautiful with a budget, and while I hesitated with revealing my secret, I actually am really proud of what I have put together in years past, which is why they keep appearing in years future, and why I decided I wanted to share! The potpourri, Dollar Store. The red candles on my wine glasses, and the wine glasses themselves, Dollar Store. The fake garland, which I think I will replace with something juuuuuust a little nicer next year, Dollar Store. Most of the bigger ornaments, Dollar Store. The small ornaments, Walgreens (yup, you read that right, Walgreens) and I add to them every year for about $20…each year the patterns change, and if they can be integrated with some of the setups I already have, done deal. And all the other decor we’ve accumulated over the years were from mine & Frankie’s family, and some are even Christmas gifts! My rule of thumb is that you should be able to use what you have to decorate your house without breaking the budget. I think the only things I splurged on where the gold & silver plates for the wine glasses, which I bought at Target for $12 each I think? But if you find something similar for less, do it!

The big kicker this year was that Frankie & I got our very first Christmas tree together, and it was a momentous occasion! Sure, it’s not enormous, but it was perfect for our apartment and the space we had to work with! And using all the ornaments we’ve received from friends & family over the years, including a large set of straw stars made in Haiti by Frankie’s mom, we were able to really deck the tree out! And on top, well, that’s  Frankie special from our favorite Urban General Store, Enjoy. If you haven’t been, definitely go next time you’re in the Lincoln Square area! They are one in a million for all things interesting and unique, and I mean, you can’t find a more unique tree topper than this one!

And that’s it! Another Christmas party for the books, and a great anticipation for next year as it will be the first Christmas party that Frankie & I will throw as a married couple, which, can I just say I am SO excited about?! EEK!!! But if you’d like to share your own decorating hacks or favorite appetizers to serve! I’m always looking for new ways to keep our parties interesting and would love to hear what you do! Hoping you all had a Merry Christmas, and a very Happy New Year! — Cooking Maggie

Cookbook Recommendations: Smitten Kitchen Every Day

AND WE’RE OFF!! I got this cookbook in THE DAY I finished writing up her Chicken & Dumplings recipe, and sure enough, I IMMEDIATELY picked a recipe (or two, or three) to try! First on the list, Brussels and Three Cheese Pasta Bake!

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Now, this was a risk because a certain future husband of mine is not a fan of brussels sprouts—which I happen to LOVE raw, shaved, or roasted with a little olive oil & salt (get it really nice and crisp, with a translucent glow to it—and for his palate (because all tastes are different per person), Parmesan is really overpowering flavor that he doesn’t like. This dish had both of those questionable ingredients in it, but I chose not to say anything just to see if he would even notice, and I also took a liberty in adding a leek to it too because it was in my fridge and I didn’t want to waste a perfectly good lookin’ veggie.

Sure enough, he did notice, but not until after a few bites! Wanna know what else? HE HAD TWO HELPINGS OF IT! He even thought there was a little chicken in it, but nada, no meat whatsoever! He was astounded, if not a little shocked at my indiscretion about the ingredients I included, but if anything, this is a VICTORY! I finally found a dish that he’ll eat brussels and parm, and for me, that’s enough! Naturally, I won’t be subjecting him to brussels again any time soon, but it was a GREAT way to start off my adventure through the cookbook!

The next thing I tried was smitten’s favorite kale caesar salad (minus the eggs because, well, I’m that weird cook who just can’t eat cooked eggs…I’m still working on it, but it hasn’t been easy and I still have a long way to go), and I gotta say, the dressing is BALLER! I will NEVER buy Cesar dressing again when this recipe is SO easy to whip together! The kale though, it’s not my favorite, and I think it’s just too abrasive for my palate, so I think I’m going to turn back to my romaine/frisée/butter lettuce combo! But the toasted panko breadcrumbs with garlic and lemon zest was a genius way to reinvent the crouton! This dish is definitely one I will be returning to in the future (perhaps even pairing it with my own blackened chicken recipe for a blackened chicken caesar salad) and I think, if you like adding a little extra citrus or pop to your salads, throw in some diced heirloom tomatoes for a soft, buttery texture! Oh, and top with a little of my secret salt (obviously)! Sorry for the lack of photos, but stay tuned! This cooking Maggie has a Blackened Chicken Caesar Salad recipe that’ll really take your salad up to the next level! And stay tuned for more recipe obsessions from Smitten’s new book! — Cooking Maggie

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Chicken Caesar Salad by smitten kitchen

On Chicago’s Mac & Cheese Fest

Last weekend, Carly and I decided to venture downtown and take part in this year’s Mac & Cheese Fest, which, let’s be honest, sounded like the best thing in the world! I mean, WHO DOESN’T LOVE MAC N’ CHEESE?! So far, I have yet to meet that individual who doesn’t enjoy a dish of mac n’ cheese every so often, but that being said, the main point of discussion—or argument, depending on how heated said discussion gets—that I have found myself having with my friends and fellow partakers of mac n’ cheese is what the best KIND of mac n’ cheese is.

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Let’s take Kraft Mac for example, an inherent staple in most childhoods. I liked (and still do like) my Kraft to be more on the buttery/soupy side, so I’ll add an extra tablespoon of butter, and a little more milk than others who like their mac to be on the thicker/chunkier side (like Frankie does). And then we can take this example and take it one step further with what we add to our Kraft when we are feeling lazy, like ground beef or hot sauce. Now, I’m pretty much a purist when it comes to my Kraft Mac, but if I’m doing Hamburger Helper (boxed or from scratch), absolutely, throw in the ground beef, but I’m not a hot sauce on my mac kind of chick, whereas Frankie loves to add Crystal Hot Sauce (or Tabasco when we have it, though Cholula has become our new favorite go-to hot sauce) and ground beef in most Macs (except my homemade “THE Mac n Cheese” because that’s just good as it).

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But that’s what’s so beautiful about Mac! It’s such a blank canvas and can have a million different interpretations! And if you’re new to cooking, or looking to experiment a little more with what you already know, I highly recommend you take your favorite Mac recipe and toy around with the kinds of cheese, the amount of liquid, the kinds of pasta (shell v elbow v gemelli v fusilli v rotini v cavatappi etc.), and your fillers! That kind of spontaneity and fun is one of the main things I love about cooking! But I could talk about Mac all day long, but that’s not what this is about! This is about the fest and all the pasta Carly & I indulged in, and I ate SO MUCH Mac that night, like basically my weight in mac, BUT I HAVE NO REGRETS! So worth it for the price! With a discount code, the General entry ticket was $60 (not including taxes and whatnot, so about $70 when all said and done) and that included ALL YOU CAN EAT MAC SAMPLES from 26 local Chicago eateries, each with their own unique take on mac n’ cheese with the mission of winning the Golden Noodle! Oh, and did I mention you also got 5 drink tickets for your basic soft drink selection, or the evening’s signature cocktail of Apple Cider Vodka courtesy of Tito’s, or a glass of beer, or a glass of wine, or even a cider! Water, thankfully, was completely free as I think it should be at any and all events that involve food and drinking.

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But then we got to the Mac n Cheese samples, and they weren’t all served in the same vessel or with the same utensils, WHICH I had some serious problems with, because if the spoon you give me only holds one shell in it, and very precariously at that, I’m going to be really annoyed eating it. I think it wouldn’t have been easier/better if all vessels and eating utensils were the same so that a) you could fit more on your plate at one time, which invariably would move lines along more smoothly in waves, and b) the vendors who gave you a ton more were basically taking advantage of your stomach, preventing you from trying all of them, which as an attendee is your own personal mission! How else would you know which Mac was the best?! Well, we understood the mission, and I’ll just say, we succeeded in trying ALL of the mac’s except for one, which I’ve included a photo of for reference of size, because, holy smokes was it enormous and in no way possible to eat so far into our task.

Please note, the following reviews are short, sweet, and very, VERY honest because, well, if I don’t like the mac, I don’t like it. What else can I be? The notes below are grouped in order of what we ate, and are written as follow: Restaurant (with link) | Chef/Team (if given) | Offering Name (if given, which a lot weren’t or were different that what was on the event website, so I added them in my actual comments below): My comments. ENJOY!


Round 1

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Starting Top Left & Going Clockwise: Whisk, Weber Grill, Son of a Butcher, Rack House, World of Beer.

Whisk | Chef David Rodriguez | BBQ Pulled Pork Mac & Cheese: Meat was so good, sweet and tender, but not overpowering. Not very cheesy though.

Weber Grill Restaurant | Chef Erik M | Smoked Bacon & White Cheddar Mac N Cheese: Bacon was underwhelming, more like a garnish than an ingredient. Horrible spoon to eat with.

Son of a Butcher | Chef Rick Rodriguez | Cauliflower Mac n Cheese: could be cheesier, or more seasoned, but tender cauliflower! Yummy!!

Rack House Kitchen & Tavern | Chef Bryant Anderson | Rack Mac Attack: brisket SO good, tender, and the pickled jalapeño broke up the richness of the meat and perfectly tart, not too spicy, good kick, SUPER CHEESY!!! Would love the jalapeno to be diced and more of it. We got seconds!!!

World of Beer – Evanston | Chef Crystal Y | WOB Mac & Cheese: pepperjack m&c, not good, stupid spoon, dropped a shell in my beer and made it taste better. If you’re a beer place, I think it better have beer in it. Not cheesy and was cold. Cauliflower Mac was better.


Round 2

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Starting Top Left going clockwise: Bohemian House, Chuck’s Southern Comfort, Rockit Bar, RACK HOUSE (AGAIN!!!), Bakin’ & Eggs

Rockit Bar & Grill | Chef Michael Sheerin | Cheeseburger Mac: gross! Mac was mustardy and that meatball was bland…not appealing. Not the winner.

Chuck’s Southern Comforts Cafe | Chef Chuck Pine: Shrimp Mac daddy, shrimp and andouille sausage, with candied andouille on top. STILL HOT!! And yummy! Didn’t notice the shrimp, but candied andoullie was yummy! Wouldn’t get seconds, but didn’t hate it.

Bohemian House | Chef Andrew Kappa | Käsespätzle: alright, but just one note. Forgettable.

Bakin & Eggs | Chef Bob & Gina Hartwig | Jalapeno Bacon Smoked Gouda Mac & Cheese: great kick, Cheese, perfectly cooked Mac. Heat does overpower a little, but only subtle. No complaints I’d eat it again. Good brunch spot too!

** Note the SECOND serving of Rack House’s Mac! SO GOOD!!!

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Round 3

 

ConeCepts | Chef Turn Cummings | Beer Braised Brisket Mac & Cheese: The plate is WAY too big! If it doesn’t fit on my plate, it’s a hinderance! Gross and watery. No brisket no beer. Bland!! Yuck!!!

 

 

 

Round 4

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Starting top left going clockwise: Amazing Edibles, Bricks Wood Fire, Famous Dave’s, Hells BBQ, House of Blues.

Amazing Edibles Catering | Chef Matt Ryan | Amazing Portuguese Mac’ N Cheese  – 2016 GOLDEN NOODLE WINNER & 2015 1st Runner-Up: goat cheese based, lighter, so pretty presentation wise, interesting for sure, but didn’t blow me away.

Bricks Wood Fire Pizza Cafe: White cheddar Mac topped with bacon and scallions: bacon had a weird flavor and cheese was grainy. Nada!

Hells BBQ Inc.: bbq brisket, wasn’t as meaty as rack, but melted in my mouth!! Cheesy!!

House of Blues Restaurant and Bar | Chef Blake Ogilvie | Bacon Mac and Cheese: predictable Mac, but yummy! Cheesy!

Famous Dave’s BBQ | Chef Shelly Marek | Dave’s Cheesy Jalapeno Mac & Cheese*: five cheeses, nope. Watery, no jalapeño flavor.


Round 5 & 6

720 Bar at The Hilton Chicago | Chef Mario Garcia & Chef Robert McKenzie: REALLY YUMMY!! The mostarda’s sweetness was unexpected but delightful, unique and different in the best way!! Buttery dry flavored pumpernickel was outstanding!!!!

Bangers & Lace (Evanston) | Chef AJ Francisco: pulled chicken Mac n cheese, heavy and dense, but not terrible!

 

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Starting bottom left (with chorizo nugget), going clockwise: Mago, Pierrot, FTW (For The Win), SafeHouse, Roanoke, Mastro’s (next to spoon)

 

SafeHouse | Chef David Hardy | Licensed to Kill Cheese Macaroni: perfect portion, meaty, not very cheesy but I don’t mind it.

Roanoke Restaurant and Club | Chef Ryan Kikkert | Creole Mac & Cheese: creole seasoning is yummy. Perfectly cheesy. Really yummy!!!

Pierrot Gourmet at the Peninsula Chicago | Chef Norman Hargove | French Onion Mac n’ Cheese: SUPER yummy!!! Unexpected but delicious!!! It was totally transformed and perfect!!!

Mastro’s | The Ultimate Chicago Style Mac & Cheese: cheesy pasta not Mac and cheese, but gardinera was a nice note.

Mago Grill & Cantina | Chef Ric Munoz & Chef Juan Gonzalez | Revolucion Mac & Cheese: interesting with the fried onions and chorizo! Not bad!!

FTW Chicago | Mammas Mac & Cheese: not for the win. It was cold and it tasted like velvetta…WHERE IS MY REAL CHEESE AT?!


Dessert

Calzone & Macaroni Co. | Chef Nic Lindsey: actually pretty yummy! Tasted like a cannoli for sure and didnt notice the pasta all that much!

XO Marshmallow | S’More Some Sugar on Brie:   Marshmallow was yummy but too sweet with the pasta.

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**WE DID NOT TRY THE FOLLOWING**:  Carlucci Restaurant | Chef Jonathan Harootunian | “Jonny Mac”: did not try this one only, it was bucatini and it was an enormous portion!

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———

Best Booth Presentation: Mago’s

Most Creative Use of Ingredients: XO Marshmallow

2nd Runner Up Best Mac n Cheese: Mago’s

1st Runner Up Best Mac n Cheese: For The Win (FTW)

Golden Noodle (Best Mac n Cheese): Rack House


Rack House won SO deservedly, and boy OH BOY was their Mac ever delicious! I mean, we even went back for seconds I think that was the third mac we had tried!! But I will say that, since attending this deliciously filling fest, Carly & I have the correct approach down pat for anyone reading this who wants to attend next year! As Carly told me afterwards, while we were both nursing our full bellies in our respective beds where we immediately moved ourselves to afterwards, “sampling Mac and Cheese is like trying wine…you have to go in an order, like starting with the whites and moving to reds – sweet to dry – and with the mac we start with the heavy and end with the light.” Couldn’t agree more with that logic, and when you basically have about three hours to eat your heart out, why rush it? Take a sample lap, write down (BRING A PEN!) all the ones you think you should start, then have at it! We also believed that we should have shared all the samples from the start, so that we might enjoy our favorites solo later on, which we would have had more room for to enjoy this year’s winner! SERIOUSLY SO GOOD!!!

For more information on this year’s event, click here. I’ll try to post an update on next year’s event, which of course, I’ll now be attending annually if I’m around! YUM YUM YUM! — Cooking Maggie

On Broccoli Cheese Soup

It’s finally the beginning of Fall in Chicago! While I love the heat and warmth of summer, 80 degrees in late September is just a little ridiculous, and besides, who doesn’t like sweater weather and bundling up in big, fluffy blankets with a hot cup of cocoa or tea precariously balanced between knees and long-sleeve covered hands, steam rising to warm your cheeks while outside, the leaves are changing to flaming reds and burnt oranges, falling slowly to the ground that crunches beneath boot covered feet. The piles of leaves that will appear in between the trees, raked together to be ruined by excited children, then raked again to have the same thing repeated. Fall is something I’ve learned to appreciate more as an adult rather than as a kid, because in Hong Kong, there is really only spring, monsoon summers, and chilly, snowless winters, with no real transition in between, no “real” fall. But now that I’m back stateside, I get to experience the changing of the closets and breaking out the boots with great vigor and enjoyment (yes, I’m that person who could spend HOURS reorganizing my closet in various ways till I’m satisfied with the outcome).

And with the changing of season, my craving for soups reemerges from its summertime hibernation, and what better way to start than with a piping hot bowl of broccoli cheddar soup! Now, I’ll admit, I have never made this at home or from scratch before, though obviously, there is broccoli and cheese involved, but then it becomes a matter of do I use all cream, or a combination? White or Yellow cheddar cheese? Other veggies like carrots? Potatoes? And so on my questions ranged, and so, to be a responsible home cook, instead of winging it, I decided to start with another’s recipe and take it from there, and where better to start than one of my favorite blogs ever: Smitten Kitchen! [Oh, and did you guys here that she’s got a new cookbook coming out in a few weeks?!?! I’m so incredibly excited about it that I promise I will be cooking a dish from her book every day the week I get it so I can get my personal take on it up on the blog ASAP!]

Now, her recipe is actually a really good one, and her process for getting to where she did is incredibly enlightening in terms of where I can take the recipe next. The amount of cheese in here is perfect, even though she didn’t mention whether she used yellow or white cheddar, but I think that allows for dealer’s preference, which I appreciate! And for the record, I used white cheddar because I think it gives the soup a better color, but that’s just my opinion. However, for me (& Frankie, because he always has suggestions that tend to mirror my own thoughts), it was too runny and the immersion blender didn’t get the soup to the consistency that I prefer.

I tried it the way Perelman prefers it because, when I’m out at restaurants and order it, the consistency & preparation is out of my control, and sometimes I don’t mind chunks, and other times I like it smooth. But when making the meal at home on your own, you have the power to really hone in on your personal preferences, and frankly, I just didn’t know what I was going to like until I made it, which is why I love to cook! The experimentation is exhilarating as you start to learn more about your palate and preferences when you try new things.

So, when I make this again, which I absolutely will, I do plan to instead use 3 cups of veggie broth instead of 4 (though keeping it near by to add more moisture in later) and I’ll be using the blender for sure, which is one of the options provided in the recipe, leaving some of the smaller pieces of broccoli set aside for post-blending to still have some of those broccoli chunks in it. I also plan to stick with my white cheddar, and use a mixture of 1/2 cream to 1/2 milk for the base of the soup (so you still get a little bit of that richness).

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But obviously, Deb Perelman knows what she’s talking about and if you too are in the mood for a little broccoli cheddar soup, definitely try this out on your own (making the adjustments you think would be best for your preference, because everyone has particular tastes on viscosity and texture when it comes to soups)! It’s definitely one of those hearty soups that really brings the spirit of Fall into the kitchen! —Cooking Maggie

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Broccoli Cheddar Soup by smitten kitchen

Cooking Maggie Notes:

  1. I used 1/2 cream, 1/2 milk, but Perelman mentions you can do a variety of combos as well (1/2 cream, 1/2 broth / 1/2 milk, 1/2 broth), so adjust to your preference of how rich/heavy you want your soup to be.
  2. If you like it a little on the runny side, then use the full 4 cups, but if you want a thicker soup, then I would start with 3 cups and keep an extra cup in reserve to add a little later.
  3. If you like your soup chunky, the immersion blender is going to be the way to go, but if you’re like me and want a smoother soup, then I would use the blender. Save some of the chopped up broccoli for after blending so you still get some serious broccoli bites in there too if that’s what you like!

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On Nachos & The Best Dang Queso

Okay, so yet again, I fell to the confusion of trying to remember to take photos while I was cooking, BUT I’m going to share the best queso blanco recipe that I have. Now, I love me my cheese, but the thing I don’t like is, when you order queso fundido or just queso dip in general, it’s probably been made with chihuahua cheese, which is great for quesadilla’s, but I don’t think it’s a good queso cheese. It resolidifies too quickly, doesn’t stay, melty for lack of a better word. And I have NOT been able to find a place in Chicago, that has a queso dip quite like the one I had in college. Vaquero’s was the local Mexican restaurant that everyone went to whenever they needed a quick taco and margarita fix for a decent price! $20 got you chips, queso, salsa, a large plate of food, and two margaritas. It should come at no surprise that they were almost always busy. But Vaquero’s was where I found my queso blanco perfection!

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The only photo I managed to remember to take before making my nachos.

So, after many years of researching post-college, I finally discovered the key ingredient to their cheese, thus being able to make it at home on those rare nights we can’t cut a craving. WHITE AMERICAN CHEESE. Yup. You heard it here. White Amerian Cheese. When melted, with a little butter and milk to get it going, it’s the perfect consistency and is still a blank enough canvas that you can kick it up a notch with a few additions. Green chilies & a pinch (or two) of cayenne for example are my go-to’s, and a little salt & pepper, naturally. And while it’s FANTASTIC for dipping, it’s also great for topping on top of nachos, which I did make during house sitting! Happy dipping, and I promise to be much better about photographing as I go, but the final product is pretty darn delicious looking, no? —Cooking Maggie

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Quick Weeknight Nachos included ground beef with homemade taco seasoning (recipe included below), homemade pico de gallo (see recipe page), and store bought/store made guacamole. Nacho chips were baked till warm (about 5 minutes at 350), then topped with meat, pico, cheese, and lastly quac.

White Queso Blanco

Ingredients:

  • ½ pound of white American cheese (Land O’ Lakes)
  • ¼ cup milk (maybe more if you want it thinner)
  • 1 tablespoon of butter
  • 1 4oz can of green chilies
  • 1 teaspoon of cumin
  • 1 teaspoon of garlic salt
  • A pinch of cayenne

Instructions: Place cheese, milk, & butter in a sauce pan over low heat. Heat til. melted, stirring frequently. When melted, stir in green chilies, cumin, garlic salt, and cayenne. Add more milk if you want it thinner. Serve immediately with chips, tacos, enchiladas, nachos, etc.

Homemade Taco Seasoning

  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • 1/2 tbsp (or 1 tsp+, to taste) crushed red pepper

Instructions: Mix everything together and store in a container for further use.

On More Screen Time & Good Ol’ Cheesey Chicken & Broccoli

It’s official! We are all moved in, but by no means unpacked…wha wha! But I finally made my first official meal in our kitchen! PF Chang Copy Cat Lettuce Wraps! Easy, simple, and a great way to kind of break my kitchen in just a little bit! I have a TON of recipes I’ve collected over the last couple weeks, so worry not folks, I am going to be posting like crazy…once I get the boxes out of my study!

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But funny enough, I have once again found myself in front of a camera, but this time, it was to help out a friend, Jimmy Boratyn, in need of a subject for one of his class finals! Jimmy also happens to be the husband of my friend Melissa who helped me with my Food Network submission, who is also a director/film maker! If ever there was a power couple in film, this dynamic duo would be it! I don’t have the video right now, but I have included the Chicken Divan recipe that my mom has been using for years, and I do mean years, and though I tried to cook it my way this time…Momma does know best. While she uses rotisserie chicken, I think pan frying bite-sized pieces of chicken rather than leaving the chicken breasts whole would work just as well, and while cheddar cheese is delicious, next time, I’m going to even it out with some shredded Mozz or Monterey Jack so it’s not so…bright yellow. And for the sauce, I made it more to Frankie’s liking (thick and creamy), but I think it needs to be just a little more runny to better coat all the ingredients in its cheesy goodness!

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BUT that being said for things I plan to do next time, LET ME TELL YOU, this dish HITS the spot, and there’s nothing I find more beautiful than steamed broccoli. I mean, did you see that gorgeous color?! And you might think that adding rice underneath is a little weird, but it’s not at all! Cheese and rice actually pair together really nicely, in a strange kind of way, but it’s just like any rice based casserole, plus the rice adds a really lovely texture to the creamy gooey-ness of the cheese, not to mention adding just the slightest hint of sweetness, which I think helps to counterbalance the rich savory notes from the cheese.

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Sure, it’s a little plain and maybe not the prettiest looking dish, and yeah, it’s simple, but sometimes plain and simple is just the way to go! — Cooking Maggie

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Traditional Chicken Divan from Food.com

On A New Camera & Lots of Practice Photos

OH MY GOSH! I’m so excited to announce that I got an upgrade! And by that, I mean Frankie was super sweet and gave me my XMAS present INCREDIBLY early! A new Canon EOS 70D! I had been looking for a refurbished one for ages, jumping between Canon and Nikon, and specific price ranges rather than camera models, since I didn’t really want to spend a whole lot on a brand new camera that I have no idea what to do with, but he wanted to make sure that if I was going to make this jump, I might as well just go big and commit. Am I the luckiest woman in the world OR WHAT?!

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But anyway, after massive amounts of research and price comparisons, we settled on a great package deal that came with all sorts of fun accoutrements, and I did all sorts of research on what lens would be best for food, and what other bloggers are using. Now, keep in mind, I still have no real idea about what I’m doing, but isn’t that what the brilliancy of Google and YouTube are there for? Oh, that and my main fry guy Ed, who has been dabbling in photography for about three years now and gave me a super crash course on how to get used to my camera and its settings in Manual mode.

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So far, not bad, but I’ve been playing around with the settings so much (and practicing on Tuggs), that I’ve been lazy and not photographing any of the recipes I’ve made so far, though some have been remakes like the Greek Chicken & Lemon Rice from Recipe Tin Eats (pictured). I also made that Pasta al Pomodoro from Bon Appetit (which was super yummy especially with bucatini, chicken, & my secret salt added to the top) and Pinch of Yum’s Simple Enchiladas Verdes (really yummy)!

As I’ve said though, I’m not a pro at this, and frankly am definitely learning about my camera as I go, but for anyone who understands this better than I do, this was the deal I went with on Amazon, this is the lens (EF 50mm f/1.8 STM) I’m currently using (in addition to the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 that came with the camera), and the light I purchased as recommended from Pinch of Yum for when it’s dark and not the best for photographing. Her tips for taking food photos in artificial light is here!

I’m sure I’ll get to work on something new in the coming days, but wanted to share the news about my new toy! Hooray! If anyone has tips on settings or links to videos to help a new camera user, I’m always open to suggestions and help!

–Cooking Maggie

 

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Restaurant City of the Year & Dining Recommendation: Income Tax

Did anyone see that Chicago was named 2017’s Restaurant City of the Year by Bon Appétit Magazine?! I sure did, and immediately took to my Google Maps like CRAZY saving restaurants throughout the Chicagoland area, in addition to other places around the country, so now I have colorful little dots all over the map to highlight future road trips & food tours (post-wedding of course, because I don’t have time or money to do any of that)! And in case none of this is making any sense, allow me to backtrack ever so slightly. Did you know that you can actually save places you search for in Google Maps? Not on the website, or if so, I haven’t figured out how to do that yet, but on your phone you can save all sorts of places in all sorts of categories you want! It’s outstandingly easy to now keep track of all the places I keep hearing about and wanting to try…alas, wherefore art thou unlimited dining budget? *chirp chirp chirp* Yeah, maybe sometime soon…but back to Income Tax, which was the #9 reason for Chicago taking this years title!

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“Now This Is What We Call Bar Food” is how it was presented, and from the outside and general locale (Edgewater, which is a little out of the way if you’re not used to dining outside of the Loop), it’s definitely not something that screams “WE SERVE AMAZING UPSCALE FOOD HERE!” My mom, our Grand Master Wedding Planner, happened to be in town that weekend to help get some major wedding to-dos checked off—Date √ Dress & Accessories (except shoes, but I have over a year to find a pair) √ Venue √  Church √  Photographer √ Videographer √…yeah, my mom’s amazing—and so we decided to check it out and almost walked right by it because the sign was so unobvious, tucked in the top right corner of an angled window. But the smell from the minute you walk in is enough to throw those first impressions right back outside.

Hipster moody is how I would initially describe the atmosphere, but not in the sense that it’s so dark you don’t feel like you can converse with your fellow tablemates, but quite the opposite. Low hung lamps from above promotes a vast sense of close intimacy with your table, keeping us focused on our discussion of centerpieces and flowers rather than people watching, which is a main source of distraction for me. We decided on dahlia’s instead of roses in case you were wondering!

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And naturally, I knew in advance what I was going to order, because I am a natural planner, and we immediately dove into some wine (cab for me, pinot for mom, beer for Frankie because that is his preferred drink of choice) and a small plate of Prairie Breeze Cheddar to share. Oh, and we ABSOLUTELY ordered the Strangolapreti (spinach & ricotta dumplings) which were a big hit on Yelp! (my main source for deciding what to eat wherever I go). The cheddar was delicious (as almost any cheddar I’ve had is), but those dumplings were OUTRAGEOUSLY scrumptious. Soft, moist, cheesey, sweet, smooth, and the white cheese sauce (ricotta/parm I believe) was lick the plate nomz! When I go back, I’ll be ordering a plate just for myself because I can.

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For entrees, there were three that looked really good, and you know your family loves you when they decide to order all three! I ordered the Trout Meunière (a lemon parsley sauce), Frankie got the Grilled Dry-Aged Sirloin, and mom got the Coq au Vin (chicken in wine). The trout was succulent, the skin crispy (and served with the skin right side up as it should be because soggy fish skin is gross), and the sweet corn mixed with the smooth, but bitter lemon sauce helped play off the natural sweetness of the fish, though I did think the pastry crumbs weren’t entirely necessary. They almost made those bites a little too sweet.

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The Coq au Vin was the most beautiful plate of food for sure, and if you don’t believe me, let me show you:

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The Chef was kind enough to put the mushrooms on the side so that I could have a bite and take home the leftovers that I knew my mom was going to leave behind, and it was some of the best chicken I have ever had! The skin was just the right kind of delicate crisp, rather than crunchy, and the meat was incredibly tender and juicy, and the velvety gravy that was poured over top just soaked into the chicken bringing out this rich earthiness to it, and boy was it a hearty dish too! Like red wine got sun tanned.

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And Frankie’s steak, I mean, you can never go wrong with steak when it looks that perfect! Evenly cooked through, perfectly pink, and naturally, that kind of impressive display of cooking deserves its own plate! And don’t get me started on the genius that was the ramp butter that was beautifully dolloped in the middle of the velvety risotto! Such a beautiful pop of freshness to compliment the peppery microgreens that were elegantly lounging on the plate. Delicious all around!

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The one thing that did let us down was dessert, and normally, that’s never the case at all, though in their defense, this was a weekly/seasonal special, so I am going to chop it up to the fact this was an experiment that I don’t think worked very well. We ordered the blueberry sorbet, and when it came out, it looked really pretty, but upon tasting found that it tasted like nothing. Literally nothing, just whipped air, so my inkling is that the blueberry, while very forward in color, just got overworked or wasn’t enough to standout. BUT again, I stand by my belief that this is not an accurate representation of their capabilities, especially since it was a special dessert and not one of the regulars, so overall it didn’t impact our impression of the meal as a whole, and they were kind enough to remove the dessert from the bill, which I appreciated. This spot is definitely one to hit up for sure, and the prices were incredibly reasonable for the quality you get, but I think next time, I’m going to stick to the desserts on the menu.


Income Tax: 5959 North Broadway, Chicago, IL 60660

On Back Pocket Pasta, Fregola, & a Quick Tip on Corn

A while ago, I wanted to try something new from the mass of cookbooks I have accumulated, and the one I wanted to open and dig into (quite literally) was Colu Henry’s Back Pocket Pasta: Inspired Dinners to Cook on the Flyand more specifically, I wanted to try a pasta dish that would be new and fun! Thus, I found myself intrigued and pulled by her Creamy Saffron Risotto-Style Fregola, so I thought I would give it a go! I mean, I even found some Fregola at Gene’s Sausage Shop when I happened to be in the neighborhood, so how great is that?!

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But that’s when I looked in my fridge and saw the fresh ears of corn my grandfather had sent me home with after I had visited with them the weekend before, and thought, yes, that needs to go into this too, because, why not? It was fresh sweet corn, and that fresh pop of sweetness would be exactly what the doctor ordered amid the earthiness of the saffron and heaviness of the fregola. And then it hit me. Shrimp. Sure, this had crispy pancetta in it too, BUT shrimp & bacon go great together, so why not shrimp and pancetta? And shrimp has been used in all sorts of dishes with pasta and saffron, so why not here either? And lucky for me, I happened to have a pound of shrimp in the fridge that I wasn’t entirely sure what all to do with (funny how that sometimes works out, no?

But then this is where I found my next kitchen hack: shucking a corn cob by MICROWAVING IT FIRST! Say what?! Craziness! Though, it was craziness that actually worked, and I did test this out on two corn cobs, and by golly, it was easy & fast, and no silk threads in sight! AMAZING! The trick can be found on epicurious (linked here) and I’ve included some photos (AND A VIDEO!) below to show the process too! And for the two corn cobs, I did microwave it for 5 minutes because it was 4 minutes for one cob, so two meant I had to add a minute. (Also, I was filming the shaking with my other hand OTHERWISE you could use your free hand to kind of help guide it out of the husk.)

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Now, I love me some grilled corn on the cob, oh for sure, but ever since I can remember, I have a strong fondness and love for corn cut off the cob, smothered in butter and salt. And when using corn in a pasta, naturally, you cut those suckers off the cob! My own kitchen hack for you all is to catch those kernels in a bowl as you cut. Its easier than trying to will the little nuggets not to bounce off your cutting board as you make your way down the cob. And this way, all you need to do is add them in right before the pasta reaches perfect tenderness!

Oh, and did I mention this is a one pot meal? Well…one pan if we want to get really technical, and while I love cooking with my cast iron skillet, it is in fact a super pain to clean, but is, I think, the best vessel for getting that stunning sear on meat and shrimp, which I was going to end up cooking anyway! So in went the pork till it got crispy, then in went the shrimp (setting aside that lovely, dark pancetta), then in went the shallots (my new favorite obsession & replacement for onions in some, but not all, recipes), the pasta, the saffron infused chicken stock, and the vermouth (because I didn’t have any white wine, and knew I wouldn’t finish the bottle, so waste not want not when vermouth will work JUST as well).

Stir, stir, stir, then finish with the pancetta (which you can absolutely substitute for bacon if you can’t find it) and corn! Top it off with some basil, that scrumptious looking shrimp, and VOILA! You have yourself a dish that even the dog wants to eat (as shown by the terrible begging Tuggs performed the minute I sat down on the couch). And I mean, if I was a dog and got to see at how pretty that corn looked tucked into the pasta, yeah, I’d start shamelessly begging too! But that is the wonderful part about Henry’s cookbook. Every recipe I perused were approachable (even the ones that seemed really foreign & outside of the box for me), nothing about the methodology seemed complicated or beyond my skills, and the recipes were simplistic in the most beautiful and flavorful way. I love it when a recipe allows room for personal preference without losing the integrity of the meal itself, and sometimes I think that’s a rare attribute to most of the cookbooks I’ve looked at. She even calls her cookbook a “loose guide,” and I think that’s just wonderfully mindful that not everyone’s palate or tastes are the same, but still able to entice her readers with her delicious photos and rich flavors. And she’s not overly wordy about how best to approach making pasta so it’s perfect every time, and what kinds of items you might want to always have stocked in your pantry for those nights after a long day when a comforting bowl of warm pasta is just what the doctor ordered. If your mouth is watering right now, I highly recommend checking out her cookbook! Happy Eating! — Cooking Maggie

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On THE Mac & Cheese

I’m going to keep this short & sweet, but have I ever mentioned that I have an AMAZING Mac & Cheese (from scratch) recipe? Because I do. It’s rich, it’s decedent, it’s cheesey, and it’s gobsmackin’ delicious! And if you don’t believe me, then you should just try my very own “THE” Mac & Cheese for yourself! And you want to know the main secret to this dish? Obviously, it’s the cheese, but it’s a little more than that. It’s the ability to spice things up by combining different kinds of cheeses together to really highlight and enhance those cheesey flavors!

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But if you’re a traditionalist, then stick with cheddar, but a great combination that you can try is cheddar and gruyere. Or Cheddar and Manchego, which I have done and is incredibly scrumptious! You could even forgo the cheddar completed and sub in some raclette (cow milk cheese that lends itself REALLY well to melting, and if you don’t believe me, just search raclette cheese on YouTube and watch for yourself) or Monterey Jack! Maybe even throw in a little mascarpone or goats cheese to add a little extra creaminess to it!

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And while this recipe is pretty basic and doesn’t seem like it’s anything special, that’s where the personal touch of what kind of cheese you use—primarily influenced by the cheeses you like—comes into play! You get to really influence and transform this recipe in so many ways, like adding bell peppers, or adding truffle butter, or adding mushrooms (if you’re into that sort of thing, which I’m most certainly not, but some folks really love it), or better yet, BACON! Mac & Cheese is such a blank canvas, and it’s when you take that leap of faith into your own creative mode that you’re able to really tap into the potential of this very homey dish! So don’t be afraid to get gouda and crazy (I’m sorry, but I had to) with the cheeses! — Cooking Maggie

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THE Mac & Cheese
Serves 6-8 // Halve all ingredients to make servings for 2-4

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. pasta
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 4 cups milk
  • 6 cups total sharp or white Cheddar (or combo it with another cheese! Manchego and White cheddar was a really great pairing, but I’ve also done white cheddar & sharp chedd, gruyere & white chedd, but plan to try harvarti and cheddar too!)
  • 2 tsp salt (add more for taste)
  • 2 tsp pepper
  • (Optional) 2 tsp crushed red pepper (for those who like a kick)
  • 2. T. butter
  • 1/2 c. panko bread crumbs

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Grate cheese, and start to boil the water for pasta (add a little salt and olive oil to water)
  3. While pasta is cooking, melt butter in a large sauce pan over medium heat.
  4. Sprinkle in flour and whisk together for 2-3 minutes.
  5. Add salt and pepper. Then SLOWLY pour in milk, whisking as you go until smooth. Add in cheese and whisk until completely melted and integrated.
  6. When pasta has been cooked, drain and place in baking pan.
  7. Pour sauce over top of pasta and mix to ensure every piece is covered in sauce.
  8. In a small pan, melt 2 tbsp of butter and add the panko bread crumbs, stirring constantly till golden brown. Then spread over the top of pasta.
  9. Bake pasta for 12-15 minutes.