I'm suspended 20,000 feet in the air. The airplane rumbles underneath my feet. A patchwork of fields and forest spreads out below me. I’m picturing tiny people in their tiny houses, easing into the dual comfort and anxiety of a Sunday night soon to turn into a Monday morning.
I spent the weekend in Canada. To me, Canada feels far more familiar than any other foreign country. I can barely remember to pack my passport for these trips, and the flight takes a mere hour (although with a generous pour of white wine – thank you, thank you Porter Airlines for having good, complimentary beverages and real glassware – it feels more like 20 minutes).
The weekend was a comfort in every sense. I took cold, foggy runs through the old cemetery on Yonge Street, then spent the afternoon warming up in front of the fireplace with a stack of cooking magazines and holiday movies on in the background. On Friday night, we had a perfect dinner of steak, ethereal mounds of buttery mashed potatoes, green beans, and roasted tomatoes. I drank my way through a bottle of very good Prosecco. On Saturday morning, we ate soft scrambled eggs over arugula with a warm loaf of currant walnut bread.
We went to a Christmas party hosted by friends in Oakville (a small town with movie-set-worthy holiday charm on the outskirts of Toronto) on Saturday night. We promised to bring some of the food, so on the way out of the city we stopped at a little storefront on a dark, quiet street.
The shop is just a takeout window with barely enough room for 4 people to crowd in front of the register. The exterior is painted in colorful stripes with the words Bobbie Sue’s Mac and Cheese scrawled cheerfully above the door. You can get your mac and cheese in 8 varieties, and you have to take it to go. It’s spare and no-frills, but run by proprietors of another excellent Toronto restaurant, and they’ve brought their high standards with them.
And let me say, any place that offers a carbonara mac & cheese is okay with me. Ordinarily when confronted with fancy versions of comfort food, I opt out. I like my comfort food comfortable, thank you very much, not adorned with garnishes or laced with artisan hot sauce.
But this changed my mind! We got classic mac and cheese, vegan mac and cheese (ROLL WITH ME HERE GUYS), and a barbecue version topped with fork-tender pulled pork.
Just thinking about it makes me ready for pasta again. So, in the spirit of opening our minds and allowing ourselves to discover something new, may I suggest you try this pizza mac and cheese?
I’m so into this recipe. In fact, all this wild and crazy macaroni action almost has me thinking I should open a tiny mac & cheese storefront myself. What do you think? Will you come eat there? I’ll make you eggplant parm mac and cheese and Welsh rarebit mac and cheese and za’atar mac and cheese.
I digress. On to the recipe: I was reading an article about creative popcorn toppings in Fine Cooking. Their pizza version deconstructed a slice of pizza into all its component parts: dried herbs (oregano, red pepper flakes, and basil), cheese (Parmesan and mozzarella), and a compound butter made with sun-dried tomatoes. Brilliant, I thought! I’ll turn it into a pasta, and I’ll add breadcrumbs to mimic the crust.
The result was incredible – better than I expected, and it tastes so much like pizza. You can add pepperoni if you’re into that sort of thing. Actually, any topping you like on a pizza would work well here. Just toss it in! I won’t judge! (Even if it’s pineapple and ham). Do what makes you happy.
A note: the sun-dried tomatoes really go a long way towards mimicking the pizza flavor. Try and buy the best ones you can find, and I recommend starting with the amount I used, and then adding even more if I want a more pronounced pizza flavor.
Pizza Mac and Cheese
5 cups (16 ounces) dried pasta
1/2 cup butter
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
4 1/2 cups milk, warmed slightly
3/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, chopped
2 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 1/2 cups shredded Provolone cheese
1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
12 slices pepperoni, diced (optional)
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 350° F. Lightly grease or spray a 9- by 13-inch (3-quart) baking dish.
Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until very al dente (about 3 minutes shy of how you'd cook it normally for al dente doneness). Rinse under cold water to stop the cooking, drain, and set aside.
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the minced garlic and cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Whisk in the flour and salt and cook, whisking constantly, for 1 minute. Add the warm milk and continue to whisk constantly. Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn it down to low and continue to cook (stirring the whole time) until the mixture thickens and bubbles.
Stir the chopped sun-dried tomatoes, dried oregano, dried basil, and red pepper flakes into the sauce. Stir for 30 seconds, then add all the cheese except for 1/4 cup of the Parmesan. Stir until the cheese melts, then remove from the heat.
Add the pasta and chopped fresh parsley to the cheese sauce (and the chopped pepperoni, if using).
Pour the mixture into your prepared pan.
Top with the remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese and the breadcrumbs.
Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling on top. Depending on the size of your pasta, it will take more or less time.
Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. Serve while nice and hot!