The best mac and cheese I’ve ever had is served at Comet Cafe, located on Farwell Avenue on the East Side of Milwaukee, (Wis., not Milwaukie, Ore.). For $10 you can get a huge bowl of plain mac and cheese. Add chili for $2, beef for $3 or ham and peas for $2. My preference is a combination of chili and beef, which was suggested by my server the first time I tried the dish. I liked it so much I’ve never had it any other way.
I used to live around the corner from Comet and had all-access to this mac and cheese. Whenever I fly home, this is one of the restaurants I like to hit up so I can have the dish. Since I only fly home at best once a year, I have to settle for recreating it in my kitchen. This recipe is as good as Comet’s.
- 16 oz medium pasta shells or your favorite shape
- 6 T. butter
- 2 small onions, chopped
- 2 T. tomato paste
- 2 T. chili powder
- 16 oz ground beef
- 1 15-oz can kidney beans, drained
- 4 T. all-purpose flour
- 2 c. milk
- 24 oz shredded cheese
- 4 scallions, thinly sliced (optional)
- Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook as the label directs. Reserve ¾ cup of the cooking water, then drain the pasta.
- Meanwhile, melt two tablespoons butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and chili powder and stir until brick-red, about two minutes. Add the beef and cook, stirring, until browned, 4 minutes. Stir in one teaspoon of salt and kidney beans.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Melt in the remaining four tablespoons butter in a pot over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring, one minute. Add the milk and reserved cooking water, bring to a simmer and cook, whisking until thick, two minutes. Add four cups of cheese, the cooked pasta and 1 ½ teaspoons salt and stir until cheese melts. Pour a little over half of the mac and cheese into a glass baking dish (I used a 15×11-inch glass dish, smaller would probably work fine – maybe better). Top with the chili mixture, then the remaining amount of mac and cheese.
- Mix the remaining one cup cheese and sprinkle over the pasta mixture.
- Bake for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes turn your oven to broil and cook until golden. Top with the scallions, if using.
The original recipe did not have beans (Comet’s does, so I added beans) and did not call for baking the mac and cheese, only for broiling. I found that by the time I had thrown everything together, the mac and cheese was lukewarm at best. So I shoved it in the oven for 15 minutes before broiling. That seemed to be the perfect amount of time.