Three Pepper Mac and Cheese
Whenever I get a craving for mac and cheese I am tempted to grab that ‘little blue box’ and cook up a pot. You know the one I am talking about…that familiar package of goodness we all grew up with. I don’t know if it’s all the memories that “Kraft” mac and cheese brings back, but I still occasionally get a craving for it. I’m no snob (most of the time anyway), but old habits die hard! Even though Kraft can sometimes hit the spot, there is nothing like a good homemade mac and cheese, fresh out-of-the-oven, hot and cheesy with a crisp baked topping. Very few meals can warm you up like that. Besides mac and cheese, my other favorite cheese dish is Chiles Rellenos de Queso. I’ve only made it once before and it turned out great (if I do say so myself), but it was a major pain to make. It occurred to me that it might be possible to add some roasted poblano peppers to some mac and cheese and kill two cravings with one casserole. That is how my ‘Three Pepper Mac and Cheese’ was born. Mild fire roasted chili peppers, combined with three kinds of cheese, and then baked to perfection with a corn tortilla crust…irresistible!
The most important thing to consider when making any mac and cheese is to begin with great cheese. Here is where you get what you pay for. For this dish, I use mostly cheddar and some Gruyere as well as some feta that will go on top (feta doesn’t melt so I incorporate it into the topping). My favorite cheddar is “Cabot Vermont Cheddar”. It was one of the sponsors of the IFBC (International Food Blogging Conference) that I attended in September, but the truth is I had been using it and loving it for years.
To evoke the flavors of Chiles Rellenos, I use fresh Poblano and Anaheim chiles that I roast over a fire. Roasting fresh peppers is not my favorite task, but the skins need to be removed, and roasting them imparts a wonderful smoky flavor…it is the only way to go. I’ve found that the easiest way to roast peppers is on the Weber. Just place the dry peppers on the grill and turn them frequently over a high heat until the skins have turned black. After they come off the grill, place them in a bag or a bowl and cover with plastic wrap while they are still hot. The steam they generate will help loosen the charred skins and make them easier to peel. When they are cool enough to handle, remove the charred skins and the seeds. If a grill is not an option, you can also roast them under the broiler. In this recipe I also add some sweet cherry peppers that you can pick up from your local grocer’s olive bar. I love the cherry pepper’s sweet, salty, and slightly spicy bite, as well as the great color they impart to this dish.
I always make it a habit to never over-think the pasta! My favorite pasta for this dish is ‘cavatappi’. It is a little ‘meatier’ than the traditional elbows and has little ridges that hold on to that cheese sauce for dear life. Be sure to cook it on the firm side (remember that you will be baking it later, and you don’t want to end up with mushy mac and cheese) and drain it well. For added excitement I sometimes add sliced tomatoes between the macaroni and the topping. You can even top the whole thing with jalapeños slices, but then it becomes “Four Pepper Mac and Cheese”. Another variation is preparing individual Mac and Cheeses in ramekins. If you try that, just slightly reduce the cooking time by five to ten minutes. This recipe makes about eight servings and freezes well.
- 2 Poblano peppers
- 2 Anaheim peppers
- 2 ounces sweet cherry or piquillo peppers
- 1 pound of cavatappi
- 1 quart of milk
- 8 tablespoons of butter, divided
- ½-cup flour
- 20 ounces of grated sharp cheddar (or a combination of cheddar, gruyere, and parmesan)
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon Ancho chile powder
- 1-tablespoon kosher salt
- 1½ cups ground tortilla chips
- 2 ounces feta cheese
- Begin by roasting and peeling the fresh peppers. Cut them into ¼ inch by one-inch strips. Set aside.
- Rinse, drain, and coarsely chop the cherry peppers. Combine them with the roasted peppers.
- Boil the pasta according to the directions on the package. Do not over cook! Drain and set aside. Do not rinse!
- Heat the milk in a small saucepan, but do not boil.
- Melt 6 tablespoons of the butter in a large pot and add the flour. Stir and cook the roux about two minutes to remove the raw taste of the flour.
- Slowly add the heated milk while whisking until the milk is incorporated into the roux and there are no lumps. Continue to cook and whisk for a few minutes until the mixture is somewhat thickened.
- Slowly add the grated cheese in batches while stirring until all the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth.
- Add the salt, ancho powder, and black pepper and mix well.
- Remove from heat.
- Add the pasta and peppers and mix thoroughly.
- Pour the pasta into a greased 3-quart baking dish.
- Melt the remaining two tablespoons of butter and mix with the ground tortilla chips and feta cheese. Spread over the top of the Mac and cheese.
- Bake in a 375° preheated oven for 30-35 minutes or until the top is browned and crisp.