Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Exploration: Wine Pairings

Photo courtesy of Samantha Samuels
If you are anything like me, you enjoy a little wine with your meal here and there, and mac and cheese is no exception.  Over the last year or so, I've had a lot of fun trying different types of wines and learning more about what types of wine go with different types of food.  I'm lucky to live near such a world famous wine-growing region, so it's been really fun to take trips up to the Napa and Sonoma Valleys and make an experience out of trying wine.

So, the question is: what kinds of wines would go well with your mac and cheese?

That's why you're really reading this.

Well, after researching and trying many different styles of wine, I've put together a quick guide for you!  Below are some types of cheese you might use and the wine that might go best with them.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon

Pinot Noir
Merlot (with an aged Gouda)
Syrah (with an aged Gouda)

Sauvignon Blanc
Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir

Cabernet Sauvignon

A smoked cheddar mac pairs well with a bolder, red wine
It's important to remember that your additions (garlic, bacon, peas, etc.) will change the overall flavor of your mac.  A tip I've always tried to remember when pairing wines is that stronger flavors will require stronger wine, so a smoked aged cheddar will pair well with a deeper red, like a Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec.  Something with lighter flavor will pair better with a lighter wine, like a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay or possibly a Pinot Noir.  From there you can try to play around with sweet, rich, bold and dry flavored styles of red and white wines.  I found that a garlic mac works well with both a Chardonnay (rich) and Moscato (sweet) wine. Both are considered white wines, but each has very different flavors.

What's your favorite pairing?  Have fun exploring!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Experiment: Bacon Fat Infused Cheese Sauce #2

Looked forward to this after work!
After feeling like I didn't give the bacon fat infusion trick a real chance to shine in a garlic mac, I thought I'd give it another try in something a little less complex.

I had some leftover béchamel sauce from the weekend and decided to use it for a little mid-week after work mac.  Since I usually don't get home from work until closer to 7pm, it was also my first time experimenting with how quickly I can re-heat béchamel sauce in our slow cooker.  I realize that sounds like a contradiction (quickly re-heating in a slow cooker), but I've found that the slow cooker really helps melt everything together without burning anything (like all my pots do), so it's my go-to option.

I melted down the following ingredients in the slow cooker on high for 40 minutes:
1 cup béchamel sauce
3/4 cup extra sharp cheddar cheese
1/4 cup Pecorino Romano

Meanwhile, in the oven, I cooked 3 strips of bacon and saved the bacon fat to mix into the cheese sauce.  I also baked some panko bread crumbs for 4 minutes at 375F and they turned out great!  Much better than my previous attempts.

While the sauce and cheese were melting down, I also cooked about 1/4 pound of elbow pasta.

Before adding in the bacon fat to the cheese sauce, I gave the sauce a taste.  I was slightly disappointed.  The extra sharp cheddar wasn't offering much in the way of flavor.  I am still trying to figure out if I should have added some more salt, or if it was just the result in buying a generic brand cheese in an effort to save some cash.  I suppose I've become a bit of a snob and now all my cheeses need to be aged.

Then I mixed in the bacon fat.  Gave it a taste.  Again, disappointed.  It, too, didn't seem to add much in the way of flavor.  So, I suppose I can stand by my initial verdict about bacon fat in your mac and cheese sauce: not necessary.  Save yourself the added fat, some mixed in bacon bits is good enough.

Overall, the dish probably wasn't my best, but I was still happy to be eating mac and cheese.  When am I not?

(UPDATE: I tried the leftovers from this dish a couple days after making it and it seemed as if the flavor was slightly stronger than when I initially made it.  Perhaps it's better after a day or two?)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Mac of the Day: Crab Mac & Cheese

I received this awesome photo from some friends who were visiting Maui.  They tried the Crab Mac and Cheese from Honu on Maui.  It has cheddar, pepperjack and parmesan cheeses along with some white truffle oil.  Looks amazing!

Photo courtesy of Ryan Sullivan

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Recipe: Homeroom Gilroy Garlic Mac

My Homeroom Cookbook!
One of my favorite recipes that I've made several times is the Gilroy Garlic Mac from Homeroom.  You can find it in their recipe book.  When I got this book in the mail, I was SOOOO EXCITED that I ended up making some the very next day.

This was the first recipe I ever made that involved more than just following the recipes on the back of the good ol' blue box.  And man, was it challenging the first time.

I think the trickiest part of this particular recipe is making the béchamel sauce (aka rue sauce), which is basically the "sauce" part of the cheese sauce.  Without this, you've just got a big ol' brick of melted cheese (although, not a bad option, either...).  Think about when you make a grilled cheese sandwich, how the cheese has this kind of stringy consistency.  Without a béchamel sauce, this is the same kind of consistency you'd get in your mac and cheese.  Not my personal favorite, but hey, some people might like that.  No judgments.  Cheese is cheese.

Gathering some of my ingredients

Homeroom's béchamel sauce calls for:
    3 cups whole milk (warm but not quite bubbling)
    1/2 cup unsalted butter
    1/2 cups all-purpose flour
    2 teaspoons kosher salt (I use 1 teaspoon table salt and it works just as well)

The recipe calls for the milk base in their béchamel sauce to be warmed up over the stove top, but since my pots aren't exactly professional quality, I noticed that the first couple times I tried to make it, the milk kept burning at the bottom and it never seemed to heat all the way through.

After doing some internet research, I found some microwave options and decided to give it a try.  It was so much easier, and so much more effective.  I placed the 3 cups of whole milk in a glass bowl and heated the milk on high for about 3-3 1/2 minutes, stopping every 1 1/2 minutes or so to give the milk a little stir.  The last two times I've tried this, my béchamel sauce has turned out perfect.

Other than the béchamel sauce, everything else is pretty straightforward.  Another trick I picked up while browsing recipes online is to grate your cheese on wax paper so you don't dirty up any extra dishes.  I share a house with three other roommates, so the less mess I can make, the better.

My first try at the recipe
One tip for anyone thinking of trying to make their own version of this, make sure you put the butter in the pot before you turn on the heat to start melting it down for the béchamel sauce.  I always seem to forget this and the butter ends up burning and sizzling at the bottom.  Last night, I actually set off the smoke alarm and my roommates had to come down and help me air out the kitchen.  Talk about embarrassing.  I feel like this is some kind of cooking lesson that no one ever taught me, and I feel like quite the idiot whenever I keep making the same mistake over and over.  Don't make my mistake.  Butter first, then heat.  No smoke, no alarm.

The flavors in this particular mac and cheese are fantastic, which is why I'm sure it's Homeroom's best seller in their restaurant.  You've got 1 1/2 cups of gouda (I prefer a 3-year aged gouda from Whole Foods) and a 1/2 cup of pecorino romano, all mixed in with 4 cloves minced garlic, 3 tablespoons of butter and the béchamel sauce.  I like to add bacon bits and toasted panko breadcrumbs as well.  All of it blends together with great proportions, with the garlic being very present but without being overpowering.  The sauce is super rich and creamy and incredibly satisfying.  I dream about making this mac.

My most recent try at the recipe
A tip if you are going to toast panko breadcrumbs in the oven.  In the book, it'll tell you toast them on a cookie sheet for 10-15 minutes at 400F until they are golden brown.  DO NOT do this.  They'll burn.  I've noticed that it only takes about 5 minutes for the breadcrumbs to be dark and practically burning, so I would either set the oven to a lower degree, or just cook them for a quick 3 minutes or so.  I have yet to perfect this, so once I'll do, I'll be sure to share it with you all.

Would I make this recipe again?  In a heartbeat.  I've already made it four times.  I'm definitely stoked to try more of the Homeroom recipes in their book, and hope that you will, too!

Experiment: Bacon Fat Infused Cheese Sauce #1

Just recently, I tried a trick I found while reading about a local restaurant's mac and cheese recipe.  One of the tricks they do to have their bacon flavor really permeate the whole dish is to infuse bacon fat into the cheese sauce.

Since I had some Pecorino Romano leftover from a previous go at Homeroom's Gilroy Garlic Mac, and my mom was visiting, I figured I'd try the trick while making the dish for her.  If you want to read more about my experiences making the Homeroom Gilroy Garlic Mac, click here.

Mmm... bacon.
I made the recipe like I have the past several times I've made it, starting with preparing the ingredients and then making the béchamel (aka, rue) sauce.  While making the rue sauce, I had 5 pieces of hickory smoked sliced bacon cooking in the oven.  I simply laid them out on a piece of foil to catch the bacon fat on top of a cookie sheet and cooked them for about 7-10 minutes on each side with the oven set to 375F.

Once the bacon was done cooking, I took it out of the oven, moved the strips to a piece of paper towel and then set the cookie sheet aside, bacon fat still caught by the tin foil.  When it came time to mix the completed béchamel sauce together with the cheese and other ingredients, I first added the bacon fat from the tin foil into the pot with the béchamel sauce and gave it a quick stir to mix in before adding the cheese and other ingredients.

Outcome? The bacon fat gave the cheese sauce just a hint of bacon flavor, definitely not overpowering.  Overall, I'm not sure it was necessary or noticeable in this particular recipe (perhaps because of the strong garlic flavor).  Maybe next time I'll try it in a straight cheese recipe.  I would say, if you don't want the extra fat, you can probably get away without this extra step.

But you know, it's bacon, so you can never go wrong with a little more bacon flavor. Yum!

And, in case you're wondering, my mom loved it.  She even brought a bottle of one of her favorite wines to share: a Moscato by Barefoot Wines.  A little sweet, since it's usually more of a dessert wine, but I think it was an overall nice pairing with the garlic flavor.

I've now opened her eyes to the world of really good mac and cheese.  All in a day's work.

The finished product.  Cheers!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Review: Homeroom

400 40th St, Oakland, CA

I have to start my first review with my all-time favorite mac and cheese artisans, the geniuses at Homeroom.  Located in Oakland, this mac and cheese specialty restaurant has been a local favorite since it's opening in 2011.  Generally, you'll find yourself waiting for at least twenty minutes for a two person table on any given evening of the week.  It's worth the wait, however, as you'll eventually find yourself holding a menu full of some of the most unique and delicious mac and cheese recipes ever concocted. 

From their Classic all-cheddar mac to their popular Gilroy Garlic mac to their decadent Ivy Leaguer: Truffle Mac, there's a style of mac and cheese for everyone, even vegans.  Not a fan of gluten?  The folks at Homeroom have you covered with gluten-free options for a majority of their menu items.  They also offer the option to build and customize your own dish with different toppings and add-ons including breadcrumbs, bacon, hot dogs, tuna, sautéed mushrooms, dungeness crab and even potato chips.

My first experience here was a lunch with my co-workers.  I ordered the Vermont White Cheddar with bacon and breadcrumbs, and have been a Homeroom devotee ever since.  I frequent the restaurant with the same excitement and anticipation as a kid waiting for Christmas presents.  Come to think of it, if someone gifted me with Homeroom for Christmas, I'd probably pass out from sheer joy.

The chefs at Homeroom have really nailed the art of the béchamel sauce, the base sauce that blends with and makes the melted cheese so creamy and filling.  Overall, their mac and cheese can be best described as rich and creamy with distinct flavors for every dish.  I've always been surprised by how well the flavors stand out in each of their dishes. 

The Smokey Bacon Mac is one of my favorites when I'm in the mood for a strong flavor.  I was initially cautious about the Gilroy Garlic Mac since I had never personally had garlic in my macaroni before, but after trying it, I've now become a fan of trying garlic in all sorts of recipes, not just mac and cheese.  In fact, the first time I ever made a homemade mac and cheese, it was following Homeroom's recipe for the Gilroy Garlic Mac.

Hawaiian Mac
The only dish I've had that I was slightly disappointed with (and I mean slightly) was one of their recent monthly specials: the Hawaiian Mac.  It boasted Havarti cheese, bacon, scallions, and roasted pineapple.  Since the draw of the dish was the "Hawaiian" flavor, I expected a bit more from the roasted pineapple.  They had the chunks cut so small that when they were roasted, they seemed to lose most of their juice.  I'd bite down into a forkful and where I would be expecting soft pasta, I found crunchy resistance.  This would have okay if there had been more pineapple flavor, but since it seemed like most of it was lost, my brain was left with a kind of flavor/texture disconnect.  However, the Havarti cheese sauce was superb and I still finished my entire plate.  So, like I said before, I was only slightly disappointed.

If you need a little green with your mac, they've got several salad and veggie options.  My personal favorite is the Roasted Brussels Sprouts (with bacon of course).  And, if you can stomach it after all that pasta, they've got some killer desserts.  Their house specialty are the homemade oreos, which have more of a whoopie pie feel and are definitely big enough to share if you just want a little sweetness at the end of your meal.

The atmosphere of the restaurant is especially fun.  They've taken the restaurant name to heart by using old school benches for tables and entries from an old library card catalog for customer loyalty cards.

If I were to use a ratings scale, I would have to give Homeroom a five out of five.  Every one of their dishes is spectacular with consistent quality and taste.  While I've found a few mac dishes at other restaurants to rival theirs, you can't argue with the sheer volume of choices they have, every one of them excellent and, if you're smart, topped with breadcrumbs.

Let's Get Started

I love mac and cheese.  That's pretty much my main reason for starting this blog.  Over the last couple years, I've become nearly obsessed with trying every different kind of the comfort food that I can get my hands on.  I've had it baked, boiled, fried, grilled, you name it.  In an effort to document my discoveries for myself and for others, I'm creating this blog.  I hope you will enjoy what you find here, and might be inspired to try out some new variations on the dish for yourself.

Forks at the ready!