There are hundreds of ways to make mac and cheese. My mother’s mac and cheese was pretty straightforward – pasta, grated cheddar cheese and hot dogs. Combine and bake until golden brown. So simple, yet so good.
As I expanded my skills in the kitchen I started making a version of mac and cheese that, by pure accident, resembled a dish my wife’s mother used to make when she was growing up. I would make a quick béchamel, add different cheeses to it to transform it into a cheese sauce and then would mix that with an egg, pasta, and diced ham before topping it off with a mixture of bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. Not only was it very rich, but it was very filling and became the perfect indulgence whenever life required some serious comfort food.
Despite crafting a version of mac and cheese that my family and I enjoy I’m always on the lookout for different ways to tweak things, or different elements I can add to make it even better. A few weeks ago, The Chew, a daytime cooking show on ABC, aired an episode dedicated to mac and cheese and I knew that I’d come away with something different to further my quest.
I’m a regular viewer of The Chew, mostly because I have a well documented man crush on Chef Michael Symon – culinarily speaking, of course (see Being Michael Symon for further explanation). It also doesn’t hurt matters that the show also features Mario Batali and one of my favorite former Top Chef contestants, Carla Hall. On this particular episode Chew correspondent Jason Roberts appeared to make a mac and cheese pot pie.
While Jason Roberts version looked delicious, I couldn’t help but think that it would also be good if it were even closer to an actual pot pie. So, as I often do, I set out to make my own version making this more of an entree than a side dish by adding shredded chicken, sauteed carrots and fresh peas into the mix. Additionally, I dropped the ricotta he used in favor of a cheese sauce consisting of gruyere and parmesan reggiano, but, of course, I kept the bacon.
I served up my mac and cheese pot pies with an arugula and spring mix salad with a sherry-walnut vinaigrette to balance things out. It was every bit as delicious and satisfying as I had hoped. And, for me, just different enough from an actual pot pie, which truth be told I’ve never truly been a fan.
Eating this made me think of my grandfather and the pot pies he used to make when I lived with my grandparents during college. Back then I wouldn’t consider eating anything green, which became the running joke in our family. I would carefully remove every last pea from those pot pies and each time there seemed to be more and more of them in there. There was little doubt in my mind that it was completely by design.
If he could see me today he’d probably laugh that I’m willingly eating a pot pie, even the peas. It’s memories like this, and the opportunity to create some now that I have a family of my own, that keeps me doing what I do in the kitchen.
What is your favorite way to make mac and cheese? Does making it bring back any fun family memories?
Mac and Cheese Pot Pie
recipe adapted from The Chew
- 2 chicken breasts, poached and shredded
- 4 slices of bacon, diced fine and rendered
- 1 medium carrot, finely diced
- 3/4 cup peas
- 1 pound elbow macaroni, cooked al dente
- 3 cups milk
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
- freshly ground white pepper
- freshly grated nutmeg
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme, separated from stems
- 8oz gruyere cheese, grated
- 4oz parmesan reggiano, grated; plus 1/4 cup for garnish
- egg wash
- 1 sheet puff pastry
- Render the bacon in a medium skillet, set aside while reserving half the bacon drippings
- Sautee the diced carrots in the bacon fat until soft and caramelized
- In a medium saucepan or saucier, melt the butter and quickly whisk in the flour until completely combined
- Slowly add the milk, whisking constantly to keep the béchamel sauce smooth
- Bring the butter, flour and milk mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat while still whisking
- As the sauce thickens add in the salt, white pepper, nutmeg and fresh thyme leaves (chopped, if so desired)
- Once the sauce has reached a good consistency (coats the back of a spoon), start whisking in the gruyere and parmesan reggiano
- Prepare the pasta according to the directions, then toss together with the bacon, shredded chicken, peas and carrots
- Spoon the mixture into six ramekins, then pour the cheese sauce over the pasta mixture
- Cut out rounds from the puff pastry large enough to cover the pasta and cheese mixture, apply the egg wash and sprinkle on the reserved parmesan reggiano
- Bake in the oven at 425 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the puff pastry is golden brown
- Allow to cool for 10 minutes or so and serve