To begin candidly: I haven’t been thinking about food and beer much lately.
We’re living in dark times. Geopolitical darkness, compounded by the literal darkness of November, makes for enveloping gloom. And in the face of relentlessly dark news, daily pleasures can start to feel like frivolous distraction.
But when I began thinking about this month’s column, I realised: if this is a time of darkness, it’s also a time for comfort. It’s a time for carving out spaces of warmth. It’s a time for reminding ourselves of the goodness, the profound goodness, that comes from sharing our lives, our dark evenings, our food, and our beer, with the people we love most in the world. This isn’t the time to give all that up – not even close.
Macaroni & cheese has always been my go-to when comfort is needed. I love the fancy stuff, and I’m not shy about my affection for Kraft’s hyper-processed version either (chalk it up to childhood nostalgia). Mac & cheese really is that most democratic of comfort foods: simple to make, accessible, inexpensive, and nourishing for the spirit, if not quite the body.
This version was made with maximum comfort in mind. As in: three different kinds of cheese, a cheese- and butter-suffused breadcrumb topping, and penne pasta, selected because, as it cooks, it draws the sauce into its very core. It’s baked for almost half an hour, only to emerge from the oven in a state of volcanic bubble. Best of all, this recipe yields an amount that’s just shy of gargantuan. You’re gonna want to share.
The common advice for pairing macaroni & cheese with beer is to reach for an IPA –something with the hops to cut through all that richness, we’re told. But macaroni & cheese of this fortitude deserves a beer with a similar constitution. I didn’t want to temper it, I wanted to pile richness on richness, comfort on comfort.
Old Greg’s Barley Wine, made by The Five Points, was the one for the job. Released just once per year – and 12 months in the making – it’s got all the sweetness, and the deep, plummy flavours, you’d want from the style. And the booze: at 9.5%, it’s capable of drowning at least several sorrows. Its residual bitterness, courtesy of three English hop varieties, also makes it a fair foil for the macaroni & cheese. If there were ever a time to enjoy the two together, it’s now.
Three-Cheese Oven-Baked Macaroni & Cheese
Adapted from Gourmet
For the breadcrumb topping:
30g unsalted butter
90g panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
100g sharp cheddar, grated
For the macaroni & cheese:
50g unsalted butter
30g all-purpose flour
700ml whole milk
200ml double cream
150g sharp cheddar, grated
200g cave-aged gruyere, grated
100g taleggio, sliced and rind removed
2 tsp Dijon mustard
¾ tsp grated nutmeg
1½ tsp sea salt
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
First, make the breadcrumb topping: melt the unsalted butter in a bowl, and add the panko and grated cheese. Stir until the melted butter is well integrated in the mixture. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Meanwhile, make your cheese sauce: over medium- high heat in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter. When the butter has just melted, add in the flour – this is your roux sauce base. Stir constantly for three minutes, or until the roux is slightly golden in colour. In a slow and steady stream, add your milk to the roux, whisking constantly so the mixture doesn’t seize up.
Whisking very frequently, cook until the mixture has come to a boil and thickened considerably. Once it has boiled, turn the heat down to a low simmer. Allow it to simmer for a few more minutes, still whisking frequently. Next, add in your double cream, three cheeses, mustard, nutmeg, and salt and pepper. Whisk until the mixture is thick and totally smooth, tasting for seasoning. Remove from heat and set aside; press parchment paper directly onto the surface of the sauce while you wait, so it does not form a skin.
Next, bring a large pot of water to the boil, and salt generously. Add your penne. Cook until al dente (you’ll want to undercook it by a minute or two, as it will continue to cook in the cheese sauce in the oven). Drain and set aside.
Butter a large, deep baking dish. Pour in your cooked penne and then the cheese sauce, mixing carefully until the mixture is combined (it should look extremely saucy – almost soupy – at this point). Top evenly with your panko mixture (depending on how thick you like your breadcrumb topping, you may not use all of it).
Place in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the panko topping has taken on a burnished, bronze hue, and the cheesy pasta mixture beneath is vigorously bubbling. Dish up as soon as possible, trying not to scald yourself on molten cheese ooze. Share with loved ones. Drink beer. Feel at least a bit better.
Claire M. Bullen is a professional food and travel writer, a beerhound and all-around lover of tasty things. When she's not cracking open a cold one, she's probably cooking up roasted lamb with hummus. Or chicken laksa. Or pumpkin bread. You can follow her at @clairembullen. And swing over to the shop or the online store to pick up the sensational Five Points Old Greg's Barlery Wine while stocks last.