Saturday, December 20, 2014

Gourmet Roasted Mushroom & Caramelized Onion Mac & Cheese



Disclosure: I was provided with a product sample featured in this post. The text and opinions are all mine.

I have been overwhelmed with anticipation for sharing this recipe. I don't say this lightly when I tell you that it is one of the best mac & cheese dishes I've ever had. Seriously guys, I'm almost too excited to type the recipe out. I'm talking succulent roasted mushrooms, sweet caramelized onions and a blend of gourmet cheeses. This, coming from the girl who thought nothing extra needed to be added to mac & cheese. Almost a year later, here I am loading one up with mushrooms and onions and truffle buttered bread crumbs. Did I mention the truffle butter?! No, this is not the mac & cheese you make for the kids. Stick to the classic version for that. This is the mac & cheese you make for your adult friends who appreciate nice things. This is your upscale, special occasion, shop like Barefoot Contessa at the cheese counter mac & cheese. I'm hyping this up because I really want you to create the scene in your head before we proceed, okay?

I'm in my early 30's so I haven't done a terrible amount of fancy entertaining at home yet. I actually don't even have a circle of friends who are really into the dinner party scene (clearly I need new friends.) Nope, nothing glamorous about my life right now. I'm chasing an 8 month old baby all day, counting down the minutes until my 11 year old gets home so I can use the bathroom in peace. That scene in Sex & the City when Charlotte hides from her kids to cry in the pantry? Me, by the end of the week. Whether it's babies or jobs or school, I'm sure many of you can relate. Sometimes you have to take control and carve out a special night for yourself. With adults. Just saying.


So that's precisely what I did on a rainy Saturday. Mind you, this idea for the mac & cheese was on my mind all week and by the time I got home from the grocery store that day with the ingredients, I could no longer contain myself. There are moments when I have so much clarity as to what I'm about to cook that I have no doubts in my mind it's going to be perfect. For that reason alone I knew I wanted to share it with my friends. I had plenty of time to make this mac & cheese and bake a nice fall-inspired butternut squash pie - more on that pie in a future post. I also had a wonderful bottle of the 2012 Ferguson Crest Fergalicious sitting on my counter, a pairing that inspired this creation I was about to undertake. There was no way I wasn't going to make the most of this, so I texted a few of my friends and miraculously everybody was free to come over that night. It's hilarious when one of your friends is also a food blogger, because they understand the excitement. My message to Resha (the fabulous owner of Carnal Dish) was literally "I have a good bottle of wine, the butcher gave me a sample of duck liver mousse, and I'm testing a mushroom gourmet mac & cheese." I can't reprint the response, but she was there by 8. Some people just get it.


Fergalicious is Ferguson Crest’s signature red wine blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Grenache. Yes, it's named after their daughter Fergie! The folks at Ferguson Crest sent me a bottle to sample and pair with a holiday dish. It's full-bodied but smooth, and perfect for a special occasion. Upon doing a little wine pairing research (y'all know I love my research), I knew I had to choose a dish that either matched its boldness or was understated - I chose to go big. The wine paired excellently with the meaty roasted mushrooms, nutty Gruyere, and sharp aged white cheddar, while the sweet caramelized onions offered balance. I loved trying something a little more decadent for my impromptu gathering. With the holidays coming up, why not make time to host your own special night? Call up a few friends that you haven't seen in awhile and invite them over for dinner. Specifically, invite them over for mac & cheese and a nice bottle of wine. Because you're going to want to make this mac & cheese, and you're going to need people to eat it. So as they would say at Ferguson Crest - make it a "Fergalicious Holiday!"

Gourmet Roasted Mushroom & Caramelized Onion Mac & Cheese

Ingredients:
3 lbs onions
1 lb whole cremini mushrooms
1/2 lb Shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded
1 lb dried elbow or Cavatappi noodles
8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
1/2 c. flour
5 cups whole milk
1 bay leaf
2 cloves garlic
2 tsp dry mustard
1/4 tsp cayenne
1 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 tsp worchestershire sauce
2 tsp finely chopped thyme
2 tsp finely chopped sage
16 oz extra sharp white cheddar, shredded
8 oz gruyere, shredded
8 oz fontina, shredded
3 tbsp black truffle butter, or additional unsalted butter
1/2 c. seasoned panko bread crumbs
1/3 c. freshly grated parmesan cheese
2 tbsp chopped fresh Italian parsley, optional garnish
Kosher salt, as needed
Olive oil, as needed

Servings: 8 to 10
Prep Time: 2 to 3 hours, but some tasks can be done ahead of time.
Cook Time: 30 min
Equipment Suggested: Heavy skillet, small saucepan or pot, large pot for boiling pasta, heavy casserole dish, heavy baking sheet

Okay I know what you're thinking - long list of ingredients. Take a deep breath. You can do this. In fact, if you've made any of my mac & cheese recipes, by now you know that good mac & cheese is a process - but it's orderly, and you'll be handsomely rewarded in the end. Compared to my classic mac & cheese recipe, there are 2 extra steps, both of which can be done in advance. If you break a big project down into smaller parts, it won't seem so daunting. Cooking is no different, and if you cook because you love to cook this is the kind of dish that makes being in the kitchen a lot of fun. As far as the steps to making this mac & cheese:
  1. Caramelize a ton of onions.
  2. Roast a pan of mushrooms in the oven.
  3. Boil some pasta.
  4. Prepare a cheese sauce.
  5. Butter the bread crumbs.
  6. Assemble and bake the mac & cheese.
Don't forget to drink copious amounts of wine in between each step.

This makes a huge casserole dish of mac & cheese. It also can be halved very easily and baked in a smaller dish, which I did the second time around for 4 entree servings.


Caramelized Onions:

I always feel obligated to warn people how long it is going to take to caramelize onions. Recipe writers and cooking show hosts usually understate this, and that irks me. Since this recipe requires a full bag of onions (about 3 lbs), it will take a couple hours to cook down in the skillet. There's really no good way to get around that, so for that reason alone it's a great task to tackle ahead of time. The only real time saving tip I have for you here is to use a mandolin or food processor to slice all those onions. You can use yellow onions or sweet onions here; sweet onions will caramelize just a tad bit faster.

Note - save half an onion (unsliced) to use for steeping your milk in a later step!

Oil your skillet (a couple turns around the skillet is fine) and add 2 tablespoons of butter to melt and sizzle. Add the sliced onions and season with a healthy pinch of salt. You can start out on medium heat and once the onions are translucent and soft, reduce your heat to low. You don't have to stand over the skillet, but stir every fifteen minutes or so to help the onions cook evenly. Once the onions are past the point of being golden brown, you will want to watch them a little more carefully to prevent scorching. 

Things can get a little sticky towards the end, so add a splash of water and use your spatula to loosen up the onions if necessary. This will deglaze the bottom of the pan, lifting up all those flavorful little bits of onion and prevent them from burning. When the onions are a deep golden brown, turn off the heat and transfer to a bowl until needed. If you're doing this ahead of time, the caramelized onions can be stored in the fridge up to a week in advance. I use caramelized onions a lot in my recipes these days, so when I have the time I will double this amount in the slow cooker and freeze a big batch of caramelized onions for future use. 3 pounds sounds like a lot of onions but will look like almost nothing once they've completely cooked down.


Roasted Mushrooms:

Any blend of gourmet mushrooms should work fine here. I used creminis (baby portobellas) because they are a good size, budget friendly, and a little more flavorful than white button mushrooms. I supplemented with the Shiitake mushrooms for an extra rich, earthy mushroom flavor. If you can spring for it, Chanterelles would be a lovely addition. To prep, simply halve or quarter the creminis depending on the size, and slice the Shiitakes, discarding the woody stems. By the way, I never rinse my mushrooms because they can absorb a lot of water. I simply brush off any dirt with a pastry brush or damp cloth.

Toss the mushrooms in enough oil to lightly coat - a few tablespoons should be enough. Season with salt and some cracked black pepper. Arrange the mushrooms on a heavy baking sheet lined with foil or parchment paper, and transfer to an oven preheated to 400°F. 


Roast those babies until they are crispy, which will take 30 to 45 minutes. Halfway through, you may need to (carefully) drain any excess liquid given off by the mushrooms if you see it pooling. I've found that roasting in the top third of the oven works best and helps that liquid evaporate off, so just keep an eye on them so they don't burn. Roasting mushrooms intensifies the meaty, "umami" flavor and creates a crispness that is difficult to achieve in a skillet. The Shiitake mushrooms are amazing this way - they'll crisp up to a bacon-like texture! Once roasted, set these aside so you're ready to use them later.


That concludes the "extra" work for this version of my mac & cheese recipe. The rest will all be very familiar. I'll try to speed through this, but as always please refer to my classic recipe if you would like a little more background info on my methodology.

Boil your noodles in heavily salted water, slightly undercooking them because they will finish baking later. A couple minutes short of "al dente" tends to be about 6 minutes per package directions. Stir the pasta as it cooks to prevent sticking. Once cooked, drain and rinse in cool water.


Meanwhile in a smaller pot, steep the milk with the remaining onion half. Also add the garlic and bay leaf. Stir it often over low heat to prevent scorching, just until it's steaming. The hot milk can be poured through a fine mesh strainer to remove all solids.


To save on dishes, I just wipe out my large pot from boiling the pasta and use it to prepare my cheese sauce. Melt 6 tablespoons of butter over medium heat until it starts to sizzle a little bit. Whisk in the flour to make a roux.


Continue whisking for several minutes until the roux is a blond color, smooth and bubbly. Then quickly whisk in the warmed, strained milk.


Continue whisking until no lumps remain and the mixture thickens; this should take just a few minutes over medium heat.  Season the bechamel sauce with the mustard, cayenne, paprika, grated nutmeg, black pepper, Worcestershire sauce, chopped thyme and sage. Season to taste with kosher salt - a teaspoon or so will do it. Adjust the other seasonings to your tastes if necessary, as all amounts are approximate to what I usually end up needing. Cheese can be salty so I hold off on adding more salt until later.


After the seasonings have a couple minutes to meld and the mixture fully thickens, remove the pot from the heat. The bechamel sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon.


Stir in all but 2 cups of the cheddar, Gruyere and Fontina cheese. I always buy my cheese for mac & cheese in blocks and shred it myself, by hand or using a food processor. You will save money this way and it's of much better quality (pre-shredded cheese is often coated with anti-caking powders that can change the way a sauce holds up.)


After the cheese has melted into the bechamel sauce, taste it once more just to make sure it's adequately salted. Then stir in the noodles and all but a half cup or so of the caramelized onions and roasted mushrooms.


The last element is completely optional but it really ties the whole dish together, and that's the truffle buttered breadcrumbs. If you're a bread crumb hater I hope I can convert you with this one. I really think a fine layer of crumbs add the perfect amount of texture to an otherwise really creamy dish. And who can be mad at truffle butter? It's a little easier to use than truffle oils and will add a rich (literally, ha) flavor that takes things over the top. You can find tubs of black truffle butter in the gourmet section of your grocery store and in comparison to let's say, shaved truffles - it's hardly the same splurge. If you really want to omit this step, that's fine, and alternatively you can also just use regular butter. I'll try not to be slightly disappointed.

Melt 2 tablespoons of truffle butter in a small skillet. Use the remaining tablespoon of truffle butter to grease your baking dish!


Then just stir in the Panko bread crumbs and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Please grate your own Parmesan too, it makes all the difference and you get a much lighter texture that melts easily. I used to buy the tubs of "freshly grated Parmesan" until realizing how much better and cost efficient it is to buy a block of cheese to grate myself as needed in my recipes. Those things last forever and you can save the rinds to season soups and stocks.


Now to assemble. Preheat your oven to 350 °F. In your truffle buttered casserole dish, layer half of the macaroni noodles.


Top the noodles with one cup of the reserved shredded cheese.


Then follow with the rest of the noodles, and the rest of the shredded cheese. For a pretty presentation, I topped it off with the mushrooms and onions set aside from earlier.


Finally, sprinkle a fine layer of the truffle buttered bread crumbs over everything.


If you wanted to prep the mac & cheese up to this point, it's okay to let it rest on the counter for a couple hours until you're ready to bake when your guests arrive. I never really make it much more in advance than that but if you have success refrigerating first, by all means please let me know.

I recommend cooking the mac & cheese on a heavy baking sheet to catch any drips. Bake until the cheese is bubbly and bread crumbs are toasted; about 30 minutes at 350°F. Let it rest for ten minutes before digging in. Sprinkle with freshly chopped parsley for a little color, if you'd like!


I can't even begin to describe how good this mac & cheese was, so you'll just have to make it to believe me. The cheeses blend together perfectly and in just the right way to be creamy and stringy while holding the sauce together. The mushrooms are nice and meaty, the onions are soft and sweet, and the bread crumbs are just little crunchy bits of heaven. The truffle flavor isn't overly prominent, it just adds a little "something" that elevates the dish. You really taste each element with every bite, and that's what I love about it. When you cook this, you will understand why I didn't need to add any meat. I'm always particularly pleased when a vegetarian entree can stand alone, and this one certainly does.


And our little get together? It was awesome. We talked, drank, ate, and ate, and ate some more. I sent everybody home with the last bit of mac & cheese left and was still getting texts and tweets about the leftovers for the rest of the weekend!

If you'd like to try the 2012 Ferguson Crest Fergalicious, my readers have been given a special discount code - FERGIEBLOG2014 to take 10% off your online purchase! Thanks again to Ferguson Crest for inspiring me to share a "Fergalicious Holiday" with my friends.