For anyone unfamiliar with the show Chopped here's how it works: Four chefs go head to head in a three course cooking competition where they must prepare a dish using the ingredients found in a mystery basket. The cooks are allowed to use anything they find in the pantry to enhance their dish but all mystery ingredients must be incorporated.
It's important to preface this by saying, I rarely make up recipes. Sure, I can whip together a stir fry or some spaghetti sauce without looking at a recipe but anything more complicated, I leave to the experts. In this case, I did glance at a couple of roux recipes for ratios of flour to milk and to figure out spice amounts but everything else was accomplished by winging it.
The first step was to grate all the cheese. I then weighed out each portion so I'd be able to pass on the info should this preparation prove successful.
Next, I made the roux using 2 cups of 2% milk and 3/4 cup of heavy cream and whipped it like the Dickens until it was nice and thick. Once I added in all the cheese, I knew I had some serious sauce. Almost resembling an aioli in texture, it was dense and hella cheesy. Instead of elbow macaroni, I used Conchiglie noodles, a ridged pasta shaped like an elbow but pinched on one side presumably to keep the sauce its prisoner.
When I dumped it over the noodles, it drowned the pasta in a sea of rich gooeyness. I figured it couldn't possibly be a bad thing for the sauce to outweigh the noodles.
Staring at a box of crackers leftover from a recent gathering, I thought, what if I mash up these butter crackers to make a topping? Is that crazy? And what if I add some Parmesan cheese? Could be great, could be a disaster. Who knows!
The End Result
I don't want to be accused of hubris but this was by far, the best mac and cheese I've ever prepared. It was as if the noodles were born in the sauce.* The nuttiness of the Gruyere tantalized the taste buds while the smokiness of the Gouda gave the sauce that je ne sais quoi. The overabundance of cheese sauce insured every noodle was crammed with flavor. The butter cracker topping was light, crunchy and strangely refreshing.
But don't take my word for it, listen to the pros. I delivered portions to The Humboldt Fog and my friend Dina and they raved. THF and Mr. THF said it was my best mac and cheese to date. She also noted that it reheated very well in the oven and I found the same to be true of the microwave. Next time I'll double the recipe in order to yield more leftovers but otherwise, this one is a keeper. In my first ever attempted Chopped competition, I emerged "The Chopped Champion." And then I turned to face the imaginary judges and cried tears of joy...slow fade.
Cheese Drawer Mac and Cheese
8 oz macaroni noodles - I used Conchiglie noodles
4oz extra sharp grated Cheddar
2.5 oz grated Gruyere
3 oz grated Jack cheese
3 oz grated Smoked Gouda
2 tablespoons shaved Parmesan
2 cups of 2% milk
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup of flour
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/8 tsp cayenne
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1/8 tsp pepper
1 tsp kosher salt
20 butter crackers
4 oz shaved Parmesan
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Grease a 9 x 12 baking dish
Warm milk and cream in a separate sauce pan
In a larger sauce pan, melt butter
Add flour and cook for one minute until melted
Slowly add in milk, whisking like crazy for 8-10 minutes until thickened
Remove from heat and stir in cheese, salt, pepper, cayenne and nutmeg
In a large pot boil 8 oz of pasta
Cook for 3 - 5 minutes until pasta is al dente
In a food processor grind crackers and Parmesan together into crumbs
Rinse noodles in cold water and drain
Add noodles to cheese sauce
Transfer cheese and noodle mixture to baking dish and cover liberally with crumbs. Bake 30 minutes until top is golden brown.
*At the Gardens of Taxco, a kitschy Mexican restaurant in West Hollywood, they describe their signature chicken dish as being "born in the sauce."