This dish reminds me of something that would be served at Comet cafe as their mac and cheese flavor of the month.xoxo
In my family we love mac and cheese. I grew up eating primarily two different types of mac and cheese: the blue box and my mom’s homemade stovetop Velveeta version. We ate my mom’s recipe most Fridays during Lent along with broiled cod and butter. Did I mention I didn’t eat vegetables as a child?
I didn’t realize I was missing out on the bounty of mac and cheese recipes or variations until my late teens/early 20s when I began working in the restaurant industry and was first introduced to the Chancery’s Zach’s Three-Cheese Chicken Mac. With it’s creamy cavatappi pasta topped with seasoned bites of chicken and bread crumbs, it was love at first bite and, not long after that, I began bopping around to different restaurants in the greater Milwaukee area trying various mac and cheese dishes.
The most inspiring mac and cheese dish I’ve ever had is at Comet Cafe in Milwaukee. I sat in the roomy seat of our booth contemplating which of the three versions of mac and cheese I should order: beefy mac, chili mac or mac and cheese with ham and peas. I ruled out the ham or peas version immediately as I don’t like either food item. So when the server asked me which kind I wanted, I asked the server which was better – beefy or chili – and she suggested a combo of both. It may have been one of the best restaurant recommendations I’ve ever had. After that day, I never ordered a different menu item from Comet again. It. Was. That. Good.
This dish reminds me of something that would be served at Comet cafe as their mac and cheese flavor of the month. The idea started when I made a stovetop mac and cheese, topped it with tomatoes and then baked the dish. I liked the baked version of the stovetop mac but wasn’t overly fond of just tomatoes. As I continued my research I found my way to pizza mac and cheese recipes. Many of the recipes I reviewed were a bit too out there for me by using noodles as the pizza crust and then piling on pizza toppings or some similar variation. I just wanted pizza flavor and pizza ingredients in a mac and cheese. I didn’t think it was too much to ask.
So I cobbled together my own pizza mac recipe by taking an easy stove-top version and making it over the top by piling pizza ingredients inside and out – minus the pizza sauce. I still wanted it to be mac and cheesy, not drowning in tomato flavor. With my first try I felt like I hit it out of the ball park on flavor and ingredients but didn’t exactly love the way I had assembled the mac dish for baking and immediately thought of different variations anyone could incorporate (i.e. different pizza toppings, pizza seasoning, etc.) to please their own palate.
For some reason I did not expect to love this dish as much as I did, perhaps it was the idea of tainting pure mac and cheese with tomatoes in their juices. At any rate, I loved it enough to shovel in two bowlfuls so that has to tell you something.
The secret to not drying out a baked mac and cheese dish is to make sure you have enough liquid when you put it in the oven. Start with too thick of a sauce and you’ll get a dried out noodle glob. You want the sauce to seem overly runny but also make sure your noodles are slightly undercooked. If you cook your noodles all the way they will become engorged with the sauce during baking and you’ll get mushy mess. Nobody wants engorged noodles. Nobody.
- 16 oz bulk Italian sausage
- 8 oz stick Pepperoni, sliced and quartered or diced
- 1 15-oz can stewed tomatoes
- 8 oz Colby-jack cheese, shredded + additional for topping
- 1 c. heavy cream
- 16 oz short pasta such as macaroni, shells, pipe regate, etc.
- pasta water
- In a medium-sized frying pan, cook the sausage over medium heat until browned and cooked through using a wood spoon to stir and break up into small less than bite-sized pieces as you’re cooking. Go for as closed to “minced” as possible. Set aside.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Arrange a racks so one is located at the bottom third of the oven.
- Meanwhile, start cooking your pasta in a large pot with plenty of salt according to package directions but two minutes less. Right as you start boiling the water for the pasta, put the heavy cream in a medium-sized heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat. Let it warm up a bit before adding the shredded cheese and stir until cheese has completely melted. This should be done about the same time as the pasta. Drain the water from the pasta reserving about two cups.
- Stir the cooked pasta with the cheese sauce, stewed tomatoes in their juices and some pasta water (I poured the pasta water into the empty stewed tomato can and found that amount to be perfect even though it looked alarmingly watery at first). Add about 2/3 of the cooked sausage and pepperoni to the pasta and stir to combine.
- Pour into a 3-quart cooking dish and top with additional shredded cheese and the remaining Italian sausage and pepperoni. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes in the bottom third of the oven. Remove from oven and garnish with some basil chiffonade if you have basil on hand.