Ultimate Macaroni and Cheese Bake
This blog post details a recipe I have been refining for what I believe to be the ultimate macaroni and cheese dish.
It all started one day when I picked up a Cracker Barrel brand Baked Macaroni and Cheese kit, which is basically just a fancy version of the standard Velveeta macaroni and cheese dinner. The breadcrumbs and garlic seasoning were a nice touch, but what really got me thinking was the idea of baking the macaroni and cheese dish.
For this recipe you will need:
- 10 ¼ inch cast iron skillet
- Large pot
- Baking pan
- Large mixing bowl
- 1 box Cracker Barrel brand Sharp Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese Dinner
- 1 box Cracker Barrel brand Cheddar Havarti Macaroni and Cheese Dinner
- 2 chicken breasts
- 1 pound thick-sliced hickory smoked bacon
- ½ pound mushroom medley of oyster, hen of the woods, and portabella mushrooms based on availability
- ½ pound Kraft brand finely shredded Colby and Monterey Jack cheese
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 cup whole milk
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Urban Accents Mesa Rosa Chipotle Powder Southwestern Smoky Blend
- Mrs. Dash Southwest Chipotle pepper flakes
- Sea Salt / Ground Pepper
- Optional: Spicy guacamole topping
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Light grill and allow to heat up. Wash, dry, stem, and chop mushrooms. Mince garlic. Trim fat and slice chicken breasts into strips, seasoning with chipotle powder. Place bacon spread evenly on a baking pan.
Once the oven is preheated, place the bacon in the lower rack of the oven. Bake until bacon starts to crisp on the edges (around 20-25 minutes).
In the meantime begin step 2.
The bacon should be firm and even slightly crispy on edges but not brittle. Leave the oven preheated to 350 degrees and pour off the bacon grease from the pan before transferring bacon onto plate covered in paper towels. Once cool pat dry to remove any excess bacon grease remaining. Dice the bacon into bacon bits.
Blacken chicken on grill, grilling each side for 3-4 minutes until cook through. Remove from grill and allow chicken to rest for 10 minutes before dicing chicken into half inch size bites.
In the meantime move to step 3.
In the cast iron pan (or optionally a separate no stick frying pan) melt butter and add chopped mushrooms. Season with sea salt, ground pepper, and the chipotle with blend of southwest pepper flakes. After 3-5 minutes on medium-high heat add minced garlic and cook until the excess water content in the mushrooms starts to dissipate and mushrooms are lightly browned.
I try to time step 4 so that step 2 is completed (chicken is chopped) and step 1 (bacon is diced) and step 3 (mushrooms are sauteed) are nearly done.
Bring a pot of salted water to boil in the large pot. Cook both boxes of macaroni and cheese according to the package directions (10-12 minutes) and straining. Do not rinse noodles. After straining add milk and cheese packets. The milk will give the macaroni a little extra moisture so that its not too dry after combining the dry ingredients and additional baking.
5) Combine and Bake Again
In a large mixing bowl, stir together the macaroni and cheese, chicken, bacon, and mushrooms. Carefully transfer the contents of the mixing bowl into the cast iron pan, tightly packing the bottom layer. Evenly spread all of the shredded cheese over the top of the macaroni and cheese bake in the cast iron pan and top with a light seasoning of ground pepper. Bake in oven on center rack until the cheese topping is fully melted (about 10 minutes).
Remove the macaroni and cheese bake from the oven and let cool for 5-10 minutes. Allowing the bake to cool will make it easier to serve and readily enjoy. To serve, use a metal frying pan spatula to cut a slice and scoop onto a wide salad bowl. For the adventurous palate, a generous dollop of spicy guacamole on top truly completes the dish.
The dish pairs well with a bold red wine, dark stout beer, brown ale, or even citrus drinks such as a gin and tonic with lime. A dessert that pairs well follows the theme of rich indulgence and cast iron to make indoor smores or a skillet chocolate chip cookie with vanilla ice cream. Finally, if there are leftovers the remainder can be reheated in the microwave or even in the cast iron pan again covering the top with tin foil and baking until reheated. The dish reheats well either way.