Eight ingredients. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a weeknight feast for family or friends. That's the philosophy behind our "8 & $20" feature. We hope it adds pleasure to your table.
One of the fresh new rules of wine pairing seems to be “white with cheese.” At least two studies back this up, and the idea does make sense, as editor at large Harvey Steiman explains in this blog post. Whites, with their acidity and low tannins, can tackle a range of cheeses, from fresh to stinky to soft and gooey, whereas the tannins in red wine tend to trip things up. When in doubt, the conventional wisdom now goes, the safe choice is definitely white.
So, when I was brainstorming for a macaroni-and-cheese night, I first thought of picking a white—possibly something that would work well with fondue, such as a Chenin Blanc or an off-dry Riesling. Or maybe a sparkling white that could cut through the richness of the dish would do the trick?
The only problem: What I really wanted was a red wine. Perhaps it’s the start of fall, with its crisp days and lengthening nights, but what I pictured was a cozy scene of bubbling, just-out-of-the-oven mac and cheese with a glass of red wine. So be it. The challenge, then, was tweaking a cheesy recipe to fit with a red.
Looking over this recipe from the WineSpectator.com archives, I could see a couple points of hope. First, according to this 2008 guide to the best cheeses and their wine matches, cheddar cheese is a natural with red wine, especially fruity, low-tannin options such as Pinot Noir, Beaujolais or Merlot. Armed with a bottle of A to Z Pinot Noir from Oregon that I found in my local market for $20, I set to work with the recipe.
The first item of business? Paring down some of the ingredients. A buttery breadcrumb topping is delicious, but perhaps better with a Chardonnay or some other toasty white. I dropped it in favor of letting the baked cheese crisp up. (If you’re partial to breadcrumbs, however, by all means add them back in.) When it came to the cheese, I upped the ratio of cheddar to gruyère, hoping to bring forth the Pinot-friendly flavors.
The result? Totally fine. The sharp aspects of the cheddar—especially the crispy cheese crust—brought forward some of the fruitier components of the wine, and the Pinot's acidity could definitely handle the creamy, rich sauce. Still, I thought I could make it better.
One of the oldest tricks in the wine-pairing book is to throw in an ingredient that the wine really likes, so for the next round, I added sautéed mushrooms to mirror the earthy aspects of Pinot Noir. It was a success. The wine tasted rounder and fuller, and the mushrooms brought an added savory, grown-up dimension to the dish. Could the dish also work with a white? Sure, that could still be the safer choice. But if you’re craving red wine with mac and cheese, this is a pretty good bet.
Pair with a Pinot Noir, such as A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir Oregon 2011 (90 points, $18)
Total time: 45 minutes
Approximate food cost: $35
1. Preheat the oven to 375° F. Use 1 tablespoon of butter to grease a baking dish, such as a pie pan or casserole dish.
2. In a large saucepot, bring salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for two minutes less than stated in the manufacturer’s instructions, as the pasta will cook further in the oven. Strain and reserve.
3. In a large skillet, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat. Add the flour and stir, cooking for 1 minute. Add the heated milk slowly while continuing to stir and cook until the mixture begins to thicken.
4. Remove the skillet from the heat. Stir in all but 1/2 cup of the grated cheese, plus the cayenne pepper and sautéed mushrooms. Pour the mixture into the buttered baking dish and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. Put in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Remove when the cheese begins to brown and the sauce is bubbling up. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving. Serves 4.