Macaroni and cheese is like pizza. Even when it's not that great, it's still pretty good. But when it's really good, it can be on another level!
My early introduction to macaroni and cheese was humble at best. Like most people, I grew up with the boxed variety that still stocks many a pantry. I honestly didn't know that you could get it any other way. While my Mom made many things from scratch, including bread and cakes, homemade macaroni and cheese just wasn't in her culinary lexicon and I was fine with that. As a kid I hadn't yet learned to appreciate the beauty of quality ingredients made into something from scratch and I certainly wanted nothing to do with macaroni and cheese of the homemade sort. It had to be psychedelic orange powder or nothing! Admittedly in my teen years I experimented with that NASA-like vacuum pack of "cheese sauce" that you squeezed over shell-shaped pasta (don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about!) and it was of great debate between my sister Adrienne and me which was actually the "best" brand of macaroni and cheese. She swore by the NASA-like squeeze packet and I held on stubbornly to the neon Cheeto powder of my childhood. Even at 14-years old I was slightly creeped out by a packet of "cheese sauce" that needed no refrigeration and could undoubtedly outlive me. The expiration date was printed right there on the shiny foil packet and this was at a time when I was still grappling with the incomprehensible idea of partying like it was 1999!
Fast forward to a few years ago on my first visit to Aspen Colorado. I was at Jimmy's Restaurant for the second time that trip and stumbled upon the "Jimmy Mac" on the bar menu. This wasn't just any old macaroni and cheese. This macaroni and cheese had the genius addition of bacon and jalapeño. That was all I needed to read. For me the math is simple: Bacon + Cheese = NIRVANA. I was IN! Needless to say this was some of the best macaroni and cheese I'd ever had the pleasure of eating. Eating? Who am I kidding? More like bowl-licking devouring! It was piping hot, served in a generously sized gratin dish with beautifully browned melted cheese on top and studded with salty bits of crispy bacon and green flecks of jalapeño for kick. The menu lists this delicacy under the category of "Sides to Share." Let me tell you, there wasn't much sharing going on. In fact, I think we ordered more for the table! I literally dreamed about Jimmy Mac that night and returned to Jimmy's a few more times to greedily consume more before my trip was over.
Jimmy shares several of his famous recipes on his restaurant site, including the Jimmy Mac. Before I knew that though, I spent a great deal of time in the kitchen creating my homage to his culinary revelation and I think I've come pretty close. In fact, I think Jimmy would be proud. In a recent Facebook exchange he humbly referred to the Jimmy Mac as a "Reese's Peanut Butter Cup accident that just happened to hit a perfect combo." Perfect indeed, Jimmy.
In fact, it's on another level!
Outrageous Macaroni & Cheese with Bacon & JalapenoServes 8 to 10
(My Take on "Jimmy Mac")
(My Take on "Jimmy Mac")
1 pound large elbow macaroni
1 quart whole milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups Gruyere, grated
2 cups extra-sharp aged Cheddar, grated
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and diced
1 pound bacon, cooked and crumbled
Panko Bread Crumbs, for topping
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Drizzle oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add the macaroni and cook according to package directions. Drain well.
Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan, being careful not to boil it. Melt the butter in a large (4-quart) pot and add the flour. Whisk over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring constantly to cook out the raw flour taste. While whisking, add the hot milk and bring to a boil, cooking until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, add the Gruyere, cheddar, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir in the jalapeño and bacon and fold in the cooked macaroni. Pour into a 3-quart baking dish. Top with panko bread crumbs. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the macaroni is evenly browned on the top.