February is just around the corner, and for many, that means the climax of the never-ending football season…the super bowl. However, I am most definitely not one of those people. I may be a fool to admit this, but I don’t care about football. It just doesn’t do it for me. But because Super Bowl Sunday is considered a national holiday in my household, which is pretty much a real life version of “the new girl”, I feel obligated to enjoy something when it comes to this classic American pastime. And, to no one’s surprise, that something is the food. I can definitely get on board for football Sundays when that means yummy bar snacks and fun finger foods. But when I’m in charge, these classic game day dishes need a makeover to meet my two standards, meat-free and wholesome (even if indulgent). And that’s where Jalapeño Popper Macaroni and Cheese comes in.
Okay okay. It’s true. I’m using the upcoming super bowl as an excuse to make an indulgent dish inspired by one of my favorite bar snacks of all time. For some unknown reason, the idea of jalapeño popper mac and cheese has been on my mind for several weeks now. It could very well be because of my constant exposure to football. Maybe not. But the means to this end isn’t important because this dish is 100% amazing.
The mac and cheese part of this dish is pretty much my standard recipe for the classic version; butter, garlic, flour, milk, shredded cheese, and pasta. But this time, I make it interesting with fresh jalapeño peppers, spicy pepper jack cheese, rich cream cheese, and a crispy bread crumb topping.
The addition of cream cheese in this Mac and cheese is life changing. It leaves the sauce ultra smooth and creamy. And that’s just the way I like my cheesy mac. It’s always been that way. My sister, Rickey and I are diehard fans of mac and cheese that stays creamy and soupy (as opposed to the more solid texture you get when baking the dish for a bit after combining the finished sauce and pasta). So Rickey and I usually avoid this step to keep that creaminess. But, if you prefer a more solid casserole style mac and cheese, it’s an easy adjustment. Simply bake the finished dish covered in aluminum foil for 20-30 minutes. Then you can go ahead with the broiling step, uncovered. Baking is also a method of reheating this dish. So if traveling to a party, the baking step may be necessary.
As always, when I’m cooking, even if it’s something totally cheesy and rich, it’s all about high quality ingredients. I use Cabot cheeses and butter (I’ve visited their factory, loved what I saw and support them whenever possible), organic milk, organic bread crumbs free of artificial ingredients and hydrogenated oils, and organic 100% durum wheat pasta (like Brad’s Organic brand). Point is, it doesn’t matter what you are cooking, always know what’s inside every ingredient and avoid products with artificial additives and preservatives. Your body will thank you for it. End preach.
Jalapeño Popper Macaroni & Cheese
Serves: 6-8 Start to Finish: 45 minutes
1/4 cup Unsalted Butter (aka 4 tablespoons)
2 cloves Garlic, peeled and minced
3-4 fresh Jalapeño Peppers*
1/4 cup All Purpose Flour
3 cups Whole Milk
1 cup shredded Cheddar Cheese
1 cup shredded Pepper Jack Cheese
4 ounces Cream Cheese
1/2 cup All Natural Bread Crumbs
1 TBS Olive oil
1 lb Pasta (elbow, shells, or penne)
Boil 6 cups of water with 1/2 tablespoon salt in a large pot. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Peel and mince garlic. Finely dice 1-2 jalapeño peppers.* Melt butter in a medium sauce pan over medium heat. Add garlic and diced jalapeños. Cook for 1-2 minutes. Whisk in flour until smooth. Cook for 1-2 minutes. Add milk 1/2 cup at a time, whisking constantly to maintain smoothness.
Simmer milk until thickened, stirring occasionally. Thickening takes about 6-8 minutes. The mixture should coat a wooden spoon.
Add pasta to boiling water. Cook until just under al dente. The pasta should have a lot of bite and texture at this point, it will continue to cook in the sauce and in the oven.
Shred cheeses while milk thickens and pasta cooks.
When milk is thickened, remove from heat and stir in shredded cheeses and cream cheese. Stir until smooth. Drain pasta and add to cheese sauce. Poor into casserole dish. Toss bread crumbs with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1/4 tsp salt. Sprinkle on top of casserole dish. Slice 2 jalapeños crosswise. Remove seeds and ribs if desired.* Evenly top bread crumbs with jalapeño slices. Broil for 1 minute or until breadcrumbs are golden brown.**
*for this recipe, I removed the seeds and ribs from each jalapeño. Leaving the seeds adds A LOT of heat so be careful. I used 1 seeded/diced jalapeño into the butter (2 tablespoons). You can add 1 more seeded and diced jalapeño to the butter for a little more heat and flavor. Leave the seeds and ribs in ONLY if you like it super spicy.
**if you like the more solid texture of a baked mac and cheese, or you need to reheat the finished dish, bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes, covered. Then uncover and broil so the bread crumbs get brown and crispy.