Eight ingredients, plus pantry staples. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a feast for family or friends. That's the philosophy behind our "8 & $20" feature. We hope it adds pleasure to your table.
What cold-weather dish is simple to make, serves a crowd and satisfies a carb craving? Allow me to recommend a top contestant: gourmet macaroni and cheese—or, as I described it to a friend this week, “winter goodness” mac and cheese.
With the excitement of the winter holidays and New Year’s Eve behind us, it’s a relief to cook a dinner that isn't centered on elegant presentation or bite-size, cocktail-party portability. Though a classic comfort food, mac and cheese is flexible enough to allow you to add the ingredients you love—hello, apple wood–smoked bacon. That's the secret weapon here: The smell of bacon filling the kitchen is enough to silence any qualms over going to the trouble of cooking your own mac and cheese rather than buying a premade or boxed version.
The keys are to make sure the cheese mixture doesn't coagulate or burn, and to undercook the macaroni and the bacon. I’m always tempted to let the bacon cook until the meat turns dark and gives a satisfying crunch in my mouth, but you don't want to do that here. Remember that the pasta and the bacon strips will continue to cook in the oven as you achieve a crispy top with melted, velvety cheese under the surface.
You don't need to head to a boutique cheesemonger for the cheese that you'll be melting down, but quality is still an important factor. While garlic and mustard powder add depth and savory notes to the cheesy sauce, using cheddar that is sharp—or better yet, extra-sharp—goes a long way. Trying to be cost-conscious, I initially bought one of my grocery store's lower-priced "sharp" cheddar cheeses. To my dismay, it was rubbery and difficult to grate, and I tasted almost no tanginess despite the label. A second trip turned up a much better option.
For a wine pairing, the flavors—tangy cheese, meaty bacon, a hint of bite from the garlic—are important to take into consideration, but more so is the weight of the dish and the texture of both the food and the wine. A buttery Chardonnay may be your first instinct to match with a creamy cheese sauce, but I was curious to try a light, earthy red to see how it played with the bacon, along with a racier white wine to counterbalance the heaviness of the cheese.
The mac and cheese proved to be a versatile match for a range of wines. The Chardonnay's buttery aromas of brioche, honeysuckle, apple and sweet hay prepared me for a lush experience on the palate that complemented the creamy cheese, but it lacked enough acidity to let the pairing really shine.
A great value Italian red made from Frappato grapes was a solid match—the weight of the wine and food were evenly balanced—but it was overshadowed by a characterful Lambrusco. This bubbly red had a fun, bold flavor profile, offering rich notes of strawberry, loam and decaying leaves, with a clean finish and moderate acidity. Enticing on its own, the wine's strong character called for another umami component in the mac and cheese, like sautéed mushrooms, to really complete the pairing.
In the end, a textured white Italian wine—made from the native Greco Bianco grape in the region of Campania—did best, especially with bites of pasta that didn't include the bacon. Next time, I'll keep it simple with classic cheeses and a medium-bodied herbal white wine to let the pasta shine—even better if I serve a green salad alongside. Of course, I can always go back to the bacon, add mushrooms and reach for that cheeky Lambrusco once more. If this means I have an excuse to make this dish again soon, I'm not complaining.
Pair with an Italian white such as Ocone Greco Taburno Giano 2013 (87 points, $18), or whip up a richer mac and cheese to complement a lively frizzante red like Tenuta La Piccola Lambrusco dell'Emilia Nero di Cio 2015 (87 points, $17).
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Approximate food costs: $20
1. Pre-heat oven to 400˚ F and set a large pot of salted water to boil.
2. Grate cheddar, Gruyère and Parmesan cheeses and shred the bread slices into crumbs. For the sauce, place two-thirds of the cheddar and all of the Gruyère into 1 bowl. For the topping, in a separate bowl, place the remaining cheddar, all of the Parmesan and all of the bread crumbs. Set aside.
3. When the oven is up to temperature, place the bacon strips on a baking sheet with a raised lip and cook for 10 minutes. (Baking instead of frying saves space on your stove top and eliminates the chore of cleaning up a greasy counter.) Take care not to overcook. When the bacon is ready, set aside and reduce oven temperature to 350˚ F.
4. Melt the butter in a large saucepan at medium heat. Add the flour and whisk.
5. Let the roux cook for 5 minutes, continuing to whisk and checking that it does not burn. Slowly add the milk, mustard powder and minced garlic in increments. When finished, turn off the heat.
6. Add the cheddar and Gruyère mix, combining thoroughly until the cheese is fully melted and smooth.
7. When the pot of water has begun to boil, cook the pasta at medium heat for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, drain the pot and rinse the pasta in cold water to stop the cooking process. At this point, the pasta should be almost fully cooked.
8. Place the pasta in a glass baking pan and pour the cheese mixture over it; stir to coat the pasta evenly.
9. Sprinkle the mix of cheddar, Parmesan and breadcrumbs on top of the pasta. Break up the bacon and sprinkle on top. Cook in the oven at 350˚ F for 15 minutes, or until the surface is golden-brown. Serves 4.