Tournament of Mac and Cheese primer

By Ron Swarner on April 18, 2014

I haven't worked off the 20 pounds of weight gained during the Tournament of Burgers. In fact, the extra weight has become my friend. The fat and I reminisce about each burger joint, becoming all mushy and nostalgic over a last call burger at Shake Shake Shake, pairing Manhattans with Maxwell's Walker Burger, eating smoked burgers next to someone getting canned at Famous Dave's, playing human pinball at Five Guys in Lakewood, a rowdy Friday burger night at Tournament of Burgers Champion Westside Tavern, and so on.

Since announcing mac and cheese will be next year's tournament, my body fat is all ready thumbing through the Big and Tall catalog.

I'm prepared to begin the mac and cheese madness immediately. Why wait? Send that lentil soup back in the kitchen! That tramp will go through me in 30 minutes. My goal is to report on a South Sound mac and cheese dish every week. Those who have followed my past columns know I will most likely fail. And, dropping in on Tacoma's STINK Cheese & Meat for its weekly mac and cheese special doesn't count, although I will not surrender that pleasure.

Let's start with my favorite mac and cheese recipe.

The first time I made macaroni and cheese, I followed the official CIA (Culinary Institute of America) recipe. It took me approximately four hours, utilized two French "Mother" sauces, cost me about $10 to make and tasted mediocre. I won't be doing that again soon. I've since learned that cheese choice; plenty of preferably fresh breadcrumbs, and ample baking time can make all the difference. One very simple recipe that turned out delicious:

Aged Gouda and Campanelle

Put a large pot of lightly salted water on to boil the campanelle (campanelle, or pig's ear pasta, is a broad, curly edged pasta that soaks up sauces beautifully. It's available at most grocery stores). Once the water is boiling, you'll want to add about a pound, pound and a half of pasta to it. Take about four slabs of bacon and fry them until they're crisp. Set on a towel to drain fat. In a medium sized saucepan, heat one-and-a-half cups of half and half until nearly boiling. Throw in 2 Tablespoons of butter and watch it melt. Pretty, right? Now you want about 3/4 of a pound of shredded quality, aged Gouda. Make sure it's aged, or you will have a very bland casserole.

Stir this mixture over medium-low heat until the cheese is smooth. Now, I was naughty at this point and just couldn't resist grabbing a spoonful of freshly rendered bacon fat out of the sauté pan beside me and tossing it into the sauce as I stirred it. Not necessary. But it sure makes things taste good. Turn the heat off, drain your pasta (as long as it's al dente) and throw it in a bowl. Crumble the bacon into the pasta and toss. Pour the cheese over the pasta/bacon and toss again. Pour the mixture into a buttered casserole (I used a 10-inch cake tin). You can sprinkle with black/white pepper, cayenne, or even something sweet like cardamom or cinnamon on top. You probably won't need to add salt unless you've omitted the bacon.

Now take a dry old hunk of good bread and grate the daylights out of it to cover the top (you can pre-grate if you want to avoid a crumb mess from the guaranteed misfires). Some people at this point would throw on a couple pats of butter. I think I already hit the decadence quota with the pig fat. Your choice. Bake it until the crumbs are toasted and the cheese is bubbling. Eat with impunity.

Well, time to stick a feather in my hat and call it macaroni, whatever the hell that means.