Pimento Mac & Cheese

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

I've been hoarding this recipe for far too long but I figure National Cheese Day is the appropriate occasion to release it to the masses! By now most of you are familiar with my Classic Creamy Baked Mac & Cheese tutorial, in which I broke down the ins and outs of making a successful pan of mac & cheese. If you haven't familiarized yourself with the technique for preparing a bechamel sauce, that's the best place to read all about it. It was a solid recipe that spun off into a handful of variations, so I won't be throwing anything new at you here as far as the technique goes. (I actually simplified a step to make it an easier, one-pot process!)

If you've spent any time in the south, you've probably had or at least seen pimento cheese spread at parties, restaurants, and the prepared foods section of your grocery store. I'll be honest, the shit terrified me for years before I ever tried it. Something about cold shredded cheese mixed up with mayo just didn't sit right with me, and I love mayo. Well, as it turned out, pimento cheese is not just delicious, it's downright addictive when made right. Scooped up with crackers or slathered on a hot buttermilk biscuit, I can't get enough of it. Some recipes can be kind of basic, but the key for me was shredding cheese by hand and seasoning it just right. I'm partial to pimento cheese made with a hint of something spicy and smoky to offset the sweet, mild pimiento peppers. Using the same flavor profile to make mac & cheese was an obvious and natural progression. Not a new idea, but as with the spread, the right seasonings and good quality cheese are what separates the bland and boring from the spectacular. My pimento mac & cheese pairs really well with bbq dishes in the summer.

Pimento cheese is traditionally made with cheddar, so I stayed true to that here with an extra sharp cheddar as the base to the flavor. Muenster cheese has a mild flavor but serves to amp up the cool string-cheese effect. The cheese that I'm gonna need you to get into for this recipe is Butterkäse. It's a ridiculously creamy, semi-soft German cheese with a buttery flavor. Yes, you'll have to find this one at a cheese counter but it's totally worth the trip. Stores like Wegmans, Harris Teeter, Whole Foods, and Trader Joes often carry it, but I've even spotted it at Costco so check around. (Boar's Head makes one, so it's not impossible to find these days.) What I love about Butterkäse is how much it reminds me of the way Velveeta melts so smoothly. Perfect for mac & cheese, and an amazing compliment to cheddar. If you absolutely must substitute something else, Cream Havarti is probably your best bet. But I'm begging you... seek out the Butterkäse!

The only other ingredient note is in regards to the onion. Instead of steeping it in the milk like my classic recipe, this time you're just going to dice it and include in the mac & cheese itself. I used Vidalia onions since it's summertime and they're in season. They have a mild, sweet flavor that plays nicely here without overshadowing the cheese. If you make this out of season, just be sure to grab sweet onions and not a standard yellow or white onion, which would be too strong of a flavor.

Pimento Mac & Cheese

1 lb dried elbow macaroni noodles
Kosher salt, as needed
1 large Vidalia onion, diced (about 1 cup)
8 oz extra-sharp cheddar cheese
8 oz Muenster cheese
8 oz Butterkäse cheese
8 tbsp unsalted butter, divided
½ cup all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
2 bay leaves
2 tsp dry mustard
2 tsp hot sauce, or to taste
2 tsp smoked paprika
¼ tsp grated nutmeg
½ tsp black pepper
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
8 oz sliced pimiento peppers, and the liquid from the jar(s)

Servings: 8 to 10
Active Time: 30 min
Total Time: 1 hour
Equipment Needed: Large pot, pasta strainerdeep casserole dish, cheese graterfine grater or zester

Get a large pot of water boiling for the pasta. Add a few tablespoons of salt. Cook the noodles a few minutes shy of the package directions for "al dente," in most cases that equals 6 minutes. After cooking, strain the pasta and rinse off the noodles with cold water to stop them from cooking further. Set aside. (While the pasta cooks, dice your onion and shred your cheese.)

Wipe out the pot. Over medium heat, melt 6 tablespoons of butter. Saute the diced onion for a few minutes, until softened and translucent. Season with a pinch of salt.

Sprinkle the onions with flour and stir to dissolve. Cook, stirring constantly, for a couple minutes, until the flour is bubbly and a faint blonde color. That's the roux, which will thicken your cheese sauce. Switch to a whisk if you haven't already, it will help prevent lumps in the next step.

Pour in the milk while whisking vigorously. Continue whisking for another minute, until you have a smooth sauce. The only "lumps" you should feel will be onions.

Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the bay leaves. Allow the bechamel to simmer for ten minutes, stirring frequently, until it's thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Make sure you periodically scrape up the bottom of the pot and around the edges, to prevent lumps from forming as the sauce thickens.

Once the sauce has thickened, remove and discard the bay leaves. Add the dry mustard, hot sauce, smoked paprika, grated nutmeg, black pepper and Worcestershire sauce. Stir to dissolve all the spices. Add salt to taste, starting with one teaspoon and then adding small pinches as needed. The sauce should taste well-seasoned but not overly salty because the cheese will also add some salt. If you want a spicier mac & cheese, you can also bump up the hot sauce.

Dump the pimiento peppers in, liquid and all. Stir again, allowing the sauce to simmer for another minute. 

Turn off the heat and remove the pot from the burner completely. Mix up your shredded cheese so that it's evenly distributed. Stir two-thirds of the cheese into the sauce until melted, reserving the remaining third.

Preheat your oven to 350°F.

Fold the cooked noodles into the cheese sauce. You'll be able to see how amazingly gooey and stringy this is going to be!

Use the remaining two tablespoons of butter to grease a deep casserole dish. Spread half of the macaroni mixture into the bottom of the dish. Top with half of the reserved shredded cheese. Follow with the other half of the noodles, then sprinkle with the last of the cheese.

Bake on the middle rack, uncovered, at 350°F for 30 minutes or until bubbly on top and just starting to brown. Allow the mac & cheese to cool for 10 minutes or so before digging in, which gives the cheese time to settle. (It's also dangerously hot right now.) Enjoy!

Make Ahead Tips:
To make this ahead of time, you can assemble the mac & cheese and refrigerate for up to a day before baking. I recommend increasing the milk by half a cup to compensate for the noodles absorbing more. You may need to bake for an extra ten minutes or so, but only cover it loosely with foil if it's starting to brown before it's cooked through.

Alternatively, you can prepare the cheese sauce up to several days ahead of time, and then combine with cooked noodles and the reserved shredded cheese when you're ready to assemble and bake. You do not need to reheat the cheese sauce before assembling.

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  1. I can't wait to try this. I'm from the South and love eating and making mac n cheese. I must say it'll be interesting in trying this with onions as I usually don't make it with onions, so my curiosity is piqued. I only like homemade pimento cheese so this sounds delicious!

  2. Wow....gonna try,I add onion to my rue also