Thursday, April 14, 2016

Week 12 - Mac and Cheese

While we love mac and cheese, we had never actually made homemade mac and cheese before the Week 12 challenge. Most of the time, we usually did something semi-homemade using boxed mac and cheese and adding other stuff in for an easy dinner. For the challenge, I decided to use this recipe for garlic, bacon, and beer mac and cheese from Erica's Recipes as a starting point, since it sounded so good. Since there weren't a whole lot of vegetables in the mac and cheese, I decided to use up the rest of the bacon and make a side dish out of asparagus and the leeks from last year's Week 44 challenge. Seemed like a good way to welcome spring.

The ingredients for the mac and cheese (adapted from the original) were:

- 7 strips of bacon ($2.62)
- 4 tbsp butter, divided ($0.37)
- 3 tbsp flour ($0.15)
- 5 cloves of garlic, minced ($0.10)
- dried thyme (didn't measure but added a fair amount) ($0.20)
- 2 cups milk ($0.57)
- 3/4 cup oatmeal stout beer ($0.59)
- salt and pepper ($0.05)
- grated sharp cheddar cheese (about 2 cups) ($2.79)
- vegetable radiatore ($1.99)
- 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs ($0.30)

The total for the mac and cheese was approximately $9.73. Adding in the side dish with the rest of the bacon, some mushrooms, leeks, and asparagus (along with butter, salt, pepper, and thyme for seasonings), the total for the entire meal was approximately $16.93. Not a very cheap dinner, but not the most expensive challenge meal we've had.

I'm not going to go through the entire process of making the leeks again since it was pretty much the same as last time except that I added some asparagus in too. The one thing that it did do was make cooking that night much more complicated. There was a lot more prep thrown in (slicing bacon, washing and chopping asparagus, washing and chopping mushrooms) because of the vegetables, and also a game of musical burners since our kitchen isn't really that large and there were a lot of moving pieces at once. By the end of the night, I had used up 3 pots, a large pan, a baking dish, and a frying pan, in addition to 2 cutting boards, the cheese grater, and a countless number of prep bowls. It was definitely a big project.

As far as the steps to make the mac and cheese, what we did was:

1. Bring water to a boil in one pot. Fry the bacon strips, then set aside to cool and crumble. Mince garlic. Grate cheese. (Thankfully A was able to help me because of all the prep work to be done. Another set of hands was hugely appreciated.)

2. In another medium sized pot, melt the butter and add the flour over medium heat. Stir until it bubbles and cook for a couple of minutes. Add garlic and thyme, and cook for another minute, stirring the entire time.

3. Slowly add in the milk and beer. Stir until everything is mixed well together, but don't let it boil.

4. Lower heat to medium low and add cheese with salt and pepper. Stir until the sauce is smooth. (This sounded like a quick process in the recipe, but took at least 10 minutes for all that cheese to melt for us. There was just a lot of stirring in this part of the recipe.)

5. Once the sauce is smooth, remove from heat and add half of the crumbled bacon.

6. While making beer cheese sauce, cook the macaroni al dente.

7. Once the macaroni and beer cheese sauce are both done, pour cheese sauce over macaroni. (The recipe did this the reverse way, but our pasta pot was larger than our beer cheese sauce pot, so it made more sense to do it this way.)

8. In another pot, add 1 tbsp of butter with the panko, more thyme, and the rest of the bacon. Stir and cook for a couple of minutes.

9. Add macaroni and cheese sauce to baking dish. Sprinkle the bacon-panko mixture on top of the macaroni.

10. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes (should be bubbly).

During the time that the mac and cheese was baking in the oven, the leeks and asparagus dish was simmering on the stove. Since both of them had to go for about the same amount of time, we had to do our best to get them on the same schedule if we were going to eat as early as possible (which was not early anyway). Chaotic and busy!

For our first time making mac and cheese from scratch, this was pretty good. My favorite part was the radiatore, which were nice and chewy, and which soaked up the cheese sauce in all of the ridges. There's a reason why it's one of my favorite pasta shapes. Baking your own mac and cheese in the oven also means you get that nice crusty top which was enhanced even more by the bacon-panko topping. As far as flavor, we didn't get a ton of beer or garlic in the sauce. It was mostly bacon and what seemed like a well-flavored cheese sauce. No complaints though. It was a really good mac and cheese.

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