My husband’s birthday is coming up and to celebrate I’m throwing a little birthday party. It won’t be a fancy gathering — just some easy food, a Funfetti cake (I am not a fan of boxed cakes, but it’s his favorite), and a bunch of our friends and their kids.
Part of my easy food plan involves several pans of macaroni and cheese. Scott loves the stuff, it’s easy to make in large quantities and the opportunities for making it more interesting are pretty darn endless.
As the plan stands right now, I’ll make one pan of basic, no-frills mac and cheese for those who can’t stand anything beyond noodles in a creamy cheese sauce. I’m still shopping for a recipe to serve the more adventurous eaters, however.
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been gathering inspiration for that exotic pan. I have a notebook with lists that feature such deliciousness as caramelized onions, shreds of country ham and English peas, all collected to help me navigate toward the very best version of mac and cheese.
One recipe that has given me a lot of good ideas is Damaris Phillips’ Beer Cheese and Mac. Instead of making her sauce with straight milk, she uses a combination of beer and half-and-half (that way you get extra flavor and plenty of richness). She also spikes the mac and cheese with harissa and smoked gouda for a creamy dish with just a touch of campfire. It’s incredibly indulgent and perfect for a comfort food Weekender.
Before you start cooking, read these tips:
— When cooking pasta for mac and cheese, make sure to drain it while it still has something of a bite. That way, it won’t dissolve into a soggy mess in the oven.
— Make sure to taste the dish before pouring it into your casserole. It’s easy to adjust the salt and pepper levels then, but once it bakes up a crust, it becomes harder to change.
— Gluten-free eaters should take note of this recipe. It doesn’t use any flour in the cheese sauce, which means that as long as you use gluten-free pasta and beer, it’s a safe recipe for you to eat.
Marisa McClellan is a food writer and canning teacher who lives in Center City Philadelphia. Find more of her food (all cooked up in her 80-square-foot kitchen) at her blog, Food in Jars. Her second cookbook, Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces, is now available for pre-order.