New Mexico Chile Three Cheese Mac and Cheese

I lived a decade in Atlanta and one of my favorite restaurants is Food 101. Their philosophy was to take comfort food (meatloaf, onion rings, tomato soup), and do a gourmet riff on American classics. I lived a block away from the place and I was there once a week. In that vein, I've been thinking of mac-n-cheese lately. If you're a purist, or have your favorite, you probably don't want to read further, because I'm going to take it apart and put it back together again. Not because I think my take is the best version there ever was or will be, but because I just wanted to play with a classic.

So: New Mexico Chile, Three Cheese Mac-n-Cheese, with criminis, and (of course) bacon.

Classic mac-n-cheese -- not out of a blue box mac-n-cheese, but Continental mac-n-cheese -- uses a Mornay sauce. Mornay is basically a béchamel with cheese, and a sauce aurore is a béchamel with a bit of tomato paste to give it a nice sunset color. One of my favorite derivative sauces is a supreme, which is a combination of velouté (stock and roux) and béchamel (milk/cream and roux). Many times, I've played up a supreme with some New Mexico red chile for color and kick, and have created my own take on a spicy sauce supreme aurore (hey, chiles and tomatoes are both nightshades!). I'm still not sure if Escoffier would approve or be annoyed.

To start, I stemmed and seeded a bunch of dried chiles, plunged in boiling water, removed from the heat, and let steep for 10 minutes or so.

Once steeped, I took the chiles and a couple tablespoons of water and pulsed in a mini food processor, then strained through a fine mesh to strain out the skins and any stray seeds.

Meanwhile, I took a half-pound of macaroni and boiled it for 10 minutes until tender

For the sauce, I chopped a shallot finely, and sautéed in a bit of olive oil until soft, then added chicken stock and cream and put on a low simmer.

I made a roux with olive oil and flour, barely cooked blonde

Once full of roux-ey goodness, I whisked into the sauce, added the chile, and whisked together.

I grated some Gruyère, and some Emmentaler. I like the creaminess of the Gruyère, and the swiss-like bitterness of the Emmentaler, and both melt well. About a cup of each went into the sauce.

As the cheese was melting into the sauce, I chopped the criminis and fried up the bacon, and chopped that into little pieces. I cooked down the mushrooms in the bacon fat, because why not?

Once the mushrooms and bacon were ready, I shredded up some Parmigiano Reggiano, about a cup, along with another cup of the two cheeses, Gruyère, and Emmentaler.

In a nice baking dish, I put in the cooked Mac, the mushrooms and bacon, threw on the cheeses, mixed, added the mornay/aurore, salted, added a half-lemon worth of juice, and mixed again.

A handful of Panko bread crumbs on top, and into a 375F degree oven for 20-30 minutes.

Served simply in a bowl:

Post Mortem: I've never used Panko before, I've always made my own bread crumbs from toast, or (in a pinch) Ritz crackers. There is an interesting and fun crispness to Panko, though. Is it worth the price for flakes of bread? The jury is still out. At least I still have most of a box.

Overall, I lean toward thinking this was a pretty good attempt at exploring the boundaries of comfort food. If anything, it needed a lot more salt (who would have thought, with the bacon?). There was a great zing from the chiles, the cheeses were nice, but it didn't have that sticky cheesiness that a good mac-n-cheese should have, especially with that caramelized bubbly edge stuff. I would hesitate to add a sharp cheddar to the milder cheeses, because the sharpness would probably overwhelm the other more subtle (and, to tell the truth, expensive) cheeses...but maybe a colby or a jack or some mozzarella? I'd eat it again in a minute, but maybe more as a side-dish than a main course.

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