Sometimes I really hate being an adult.
I remember how in college and the immediate years beyond when I was officially an adult, but still transitioning from living the life of a carefree youngster, my social life was so easy.
It was a Saturday night. I’d call up my friends Mike and Rich and say, “You want to hang out?” We’d pick a place – usually either Mike’s house or the diner – and just spend hours goofing off together. Sometimes we would plan adventures. We would head to museums and water parks and historic sites and hiking trails. We’d climb into my giant old Buick (The Blue Bonnet we called her) and take off parts unknown.
Now we have grown up almost completely. We have jobs. We have moved multiple times. We have married or partnered off. Getting together is no longer as simple as picking up the phone and asking if your friends are free that night. It means spending weeks of emailing back and forth, trying desperately to find a date everyone is free, often not finding a date until two months after the first contact. It’s a sad fact of life. Growing up stinks!
It does mean that we really do cherish those times when we do get together and we try as often as possible. We had the extraordinary luck that on President’s Day we all had the day off and we all had open schedules. All of our spouses and partners were working, so it would be more like the old days. Rather than plan some elaborate getaway, we decided to have the kind of day like we used to have. Everyone would come over to my place for the day and we would simply hang out, goof around, play Trivial Pursuit (although we have stopped playing the version where you have to take a drink every time you have a wrong answer, or roll a 6, or land on a yellow square, or land on “roll again”), and play Xbox karaoke.
I decided that there would be one change and that’s in the quality of food we would eat. There would be no diners or junk food. I am compelled to feed people, so I would cook them lunch.
Cooking for friends isn’t as easy as it used to be. Mike has become a vegetarian in recent years (the man anthropomorphizes every living thing.) Rich isn’t picky and generally eats everything, but when he doesn’t like something, he really doesn’t like it. What could I make that everyone would like?
The answer was simple: Macaroni and Cheese! It’s something I almost never make for myself because it’s hard to eat a whole pan of it myself and Sir Pickypants won’t touch it. It was a cold, snowy, winter day, which was ideal for comfort foods as well. Macaroni and Cheese is also something I can really play with and do all kinds of fun variations on.
So how would I make my Mac & Cheese more interesting? The best place to start is in the cheeses you use. I was very tempted by this recipe, but Rich hates rosemary (“It’s like eating pine needles”). I decided to do it with a Spanish twist. I started with manchego cheese. Since it’s strong and it’s expensive, I tempered it with havarti. I added bit of piquillo peppers, caramelized onions, sherry and paprika. On the top I put a layer of garlicky breadcrumbs, lightly seasoned with smoked paprika. I also used some heavy duty shells for my pasta. Elbows are good, but I wanted something a bit heartier.
This was some mightily impressive M&C. I had trouble restraining myself from eating the whole dish of it. What made it even tougher is that Rich ended up having to go into work at the last minute (I suppose on the good side his wife probably didn’t feel so bad about working), which meant that the two of us were eating this whole dish ourselves. I could at least send a good chunk of it home with Mike. He and his partner Paul could have it for dinner.
Yes, of course I provided dessert. I made my Bourbon Orange Pound Cake, which I always say is one of the best cakes I ever came up with.
It was a great day and I hope we can do it again – hopefully with Rich the next time. Maybe we’ll even let Kevin and Mickey and Paul join us the next time. ;-)
Manchego Macaroni & Cheese
2 cups fresh bread crumbs (I used a small, stale, multigrain, artisan baguette)
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp salt
4 Tbl olive oil, divided
Butter for buttering baking dish
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 pound hearty macaroni (shells, rigatoni, cavatappi, etc.)
4 Tbl butter
4 Tbl flour
1 quart tepid milk(whole is good, but you can mix in some half and half if you feel like it)
½ pound manchego cheese, shredded
½ pound havarti cheese, shredded
2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp white pepper
Salt to taste
1 10oz jar piquillo peppers, drained and diced
2 Tbl dry sherry
Heat 2 Tbl olive oil in a large pan and add garlic, cooking until fragrant. Add the crumbs and cook until well coated with the garlic and oil and a bit crispy. Stir in salt and smoked paprika and set aside.
Heat remaining 2 Tbl of oil over low heat in a pan. Add onion and cook over low heat until very soft and light brown. The thinner you slice your onions, the faster this will happen.
Heat oven to 350 and butter a baking dish.
Cook macaroni in boiling, salted water for about 5 minutes. You want it to be very firm still. Drain and set aside. You can throw in a little butter to keep it from sticking together.
In a large saucepan melt butter and whisk in the flour. Keep whisking until the flour starts to smell good and loses its raw taste. Slowly whisk in the milk. Keep whisking over medium heat until thickened. You should be able to coat the back of a spoon and draw a line with your finger through it. Stir in nutmeg and white pepper and season with salt to taste.
Add cheeses and stir until mixture is melted and smooth. Stir in paprika, nutmeg, and sherry.
Mix cheese sauce with macaroni, onions, and peppers, Pour into buttered baking dish. Top with garlic crumb mixture.
Bake for about 25 minutes, or until golden and bubbly.