Pimento Mac and Cheese

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At this point in my life I appreciate homemade food and generally prefer real ingredients over packaged, but it wasn’t always that way. My poor mom had to deal with kids who preferred Kraft mac and cheese from a box over anything approaching a homemade baked version. My taste became more discerning in college when my roommates and I would regroup in the kitchen following a late night and split a box of Annie’s mac and cheese but the point was the same – quick cooking noodles and thin cheese sauce with some grit left in it. I still do love the boxed stuff but it has become more of a special occasion food at this point.

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You see, I am dating a mac and cheese snob. Jeff’s mom makes homemade baked mac and cheese and she makes a really excellent version of it. He grew up eating it and will not tolerate boxed mac and cheese; he doesn’t even really like the stovetop version. From him, I have learned that it’s only mac and cheese when you use proper elbow shaped pasta (otherwise it’s just baked pasta and cheese) and how to make a creamy inside and crunchy outside version of his mom’s mac and cheese. I do really love it and I (mostly) don’t miss the box, but I do like to mix up the traditional version by adding other ingredients and changing the flavor profile.

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My newest obsession in cheese-related food (which is my favorite food group) is Pimento Cheese which is a heavenly mix of cheese, mayonnaise, roasted red peppers, and spice. It’s a pretty easy dip to put together and there are endless recipes for it out there. And for the last few weeks I’ve been experimenting with ways to incorporate its flavor into mac and cheese. After a few flops (I’ve sadly discovered that mayonnaise is not a substitute for béchamel sauce), I’ve put together a pretty good combination of the two dishes albeit using some unorthodox ingredients.

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For this dish, I made my own roasted peppers because I had time and I love having them around. But the jarred variety will work just as well as is probably more traditional for pimento cheese anyway. In order to get the spicy zing I added Sriracha, which gives it some heat and a vinegary kick. Yes, the vinegar may not be traditional for pimento cheese but it perks up the cheesy goodness and fills in the tanginess that is missing since there is no mayo in this dish.

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I love eating good sharp cheese but it’s not my favorite in mac and cheese and I wouldn’t recommend it for this iteration either. The sharp cheese doesn’t break down well in the cheese sauce and you end up with a somewhat grainy finished product that is even more pronounced when you reheat the leftovers. So instead I like to use a milder cheddar and combine it with a really melty cheese like mozzarella or mild Monterey jack.

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This iteration of pimento mac and cheese: it’s a keeper. It’s not too far from the traditional version but the added flavors definitely summon up bowls of pimento cheese which is a great way to remake this classic. And the mac and cheese connoisseur? He even enjoyed the leftovers he reheated for lunch.

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Pimento Mac and Cheese

1 cup pimentos or roasted red peppers, sliced
8 ounces mild or medium cheddar, shredded
4 ounces mozzarella, shredded
2 tbs butter
1 tbs flour
1 cup milk, warmed over low heat
¼ tsp nutmeg, freshly grated if possible
1 tbs plus 2 tsp kosher salt
1 tbs Sriracha*
1.5 cups dried macaroni elbows

Preheat the oven to 350F and butter a loaf pan, 8 by 8 pan, or casserole dish. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil with 1 tbs of salt. When the water is boiling, add the macaroni and cook for ¾ of the recommended time on the package. Drain and set aside.

In a wide bottomed medium size pot, melt the butter over medium heat. When it starts to bubble, add the flour and whisk to combine. Continue whisking and cook the mixture for a few minutes to get rid of the floury taste. Slowly add the milk a few tablespoons at a time and whisk to combine after each addition.** Continue adding milk and stirring until all the milk is added.

Once the milk is combined with the roux, add the shredded cheese in four equal portions. Let the cheese almost fully melt into the sauce before adding the next portion. Whisk throughout this process to incorporate the cheese and ensure that the sauce doesn’t stick in the corners of the pot. Once the cheese is fully melted add 1 tsp of salt, nutmeg, peppers, and Sriracha. Taste and add the last 1 tsp of salt if needed.

Turn off the heat and add the drained pasta to the cheese sauce. Stir to combine and pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Bake for about 40 minutes or until the edges are brown and bubbly and the top is just starting to get some brown spots. Remove from the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes before serving. Reheat in a covered container with about 1 tbs of milk added so that the mac and cheese doesn’t dry out as it heats up.

*If you don’t have (or don’t like) Sriracha, just add either some hot sauce or cayenne powder (to your liking) and 1 tsp vinegar to give it that little bit of tang.

**Using warm milk will help it to incorporate more easily into the flour/butter roux. If you use cold milk it will still work but you’ll have to whisk more to fully integrate the ingredients and get rid of any lumps.

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