macaroni and cheese

Mac is Back

All grown up and loaded with gooey gourmet cheeses, this classic comfort food packs a ton of flavorful possibilities.

Lizbeth Scordo Current PSL, Restaurants

macaroni and cheese

At Babe’s Bar-b-que & Brewery in Rancho Mirage, the cheese sticks to the brisket mac.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NATE ABBOTT

the valley

FOOD

What do firecrackers, pet frogs, and boxes of powdered mac and cheese have in common? They’re all things we might have enjoyed as kids, but likely wouldn’t touch as adults. Luckily, when it comes to the latter, plenty of scratch-made, inventive versions with high-end ingredients abound, as more diners want dishes that transport them back to their childhood but match their mature taste.

“It’s a really nostalgic, comforting dish,” says Alison Arevalo, co-author of The Mac + Cheese Cookbook: 50 Simple Recipes from Homeroom, America’s Favorite Mac and Cheese Restaurant. “It’s ageless, and it’s never going to go out of style. (She co-founded the Oakland eatery in 2011 and opened her Brooklyn-based fresh pasta restaurant Pasta Louise last year.) The trick to luring adults back to the mac is retaining the core components — a roof-of-your-mouth-scorching cheese sauce (avoid the artificial neon-hued options) and a sturdy, short hollow noodle that slurps up the stuff — then add something new and interesting, whether it’s a mix of gourmet cheeses, a fresh vegetable, or an unexpected protein.

“There are ways to make it elevated and feel grown-up but still have the basic components that you remember,” says Arevalo, who has created a Gilroy garlic-and-gouda version, a Mexican-inspired mac with Niman Ranch chorizo and chipotle adobe, and another baked with broccoli and a walnut pesto. “Even if it’s a spicy mac and cheese with mushrooms or goat cheese or things you really wouldn’t eat as a kid, it still makes you feel good and makes you smile. And it’s also delicious.”

Here are three decadent variations of the classic dish available around the Coachella Valley.

Brisket Mac & Cheese

Babe’s Bar-B-Que & Brewery, Rancho Mirage 

“Believe it or not, Babe’s never had mac and cheese before I took over,” reveals owner Lucky Callender, who, in 2018, bought back the restaurant that his late father Don Callender founded almost 20 years ago. “I added it because we’re a barbeque place and mac and cheese is a huge thing.”

After launching a classic version, he spotted some creative variations on Instagram that inspired him to collaborate with executive chef Brian Ortiz on Babe’s signature version, blending the restaurant’s popular Memphis-rubbed, hickory-and-pecan-wood-smoked brisket with the cheesy macaroni. The recipe originally blended only white cheddar with its roux base, but Callender quickly discovered one cheese wasn’t enough. “It was bland,” he concedes. “The white cheddar is actually a really high-end cheese for mac and cheese, but everyone wants something that reminds them a little of Kraft.” They added yellow cheddar along with cream cheese, mozzarella, and an intense smoked gouda. They also boil the macaroni in chicken stock for an extra infusion of flavor.

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When creating the recipe, the guys decided to tackle an issue they identified with many other mac and cheeses they’d sampled at barbeque restaurants. “The cheese doesn’t stay on the noodle a lot of times,” Callender notes. “Our mac and cheese is glossy and sticks on the noodle really well.” The secret? (Any calorie counters still reading this should give up now.) Ortiz uses heavy cream in the roux.

Shaking up Babe’s “old-school, straight-up meat” menu with updated plays on classics like the brisket mac — now one of the restaurant’s best sellers — has paid off. “The new-school stuff has definitely brought in a bigger crowd,” Callender says. “The foodies love it.”

Chunks of Lobster
 Swimming
in Cheesy
Macaroni

Norma’s, Palm Springs

Editor’s Note: The Parker Palm Springs is slated to reopen Feb. 11, 2021.

The Parker Palm Springs already oozes an eclectic-meets-luxe style with its macramé-owl-covered lobby and circular Malm fireplace perfect for martini sipping, lushly landscaped grounds leading to tucked-away croquet and petanque courts, and a church confessional booth hidden in the back of its sexy wine bar. So this bowl of bubbling mac and cheese topped with a whole lobster claw that’s served at the hotel’s posh patio restaurant fits right in.

“People see the lobster and say, ‘Yeah, I’ll take that.’ Some people come in for it once or twice a week,” says Parker executive chef Hervé Glin.

While the dish predates Glin’s 2013 arrival, he’s made a few upgrades, tweaking it to blend cream cheese, cheddar, Provolone, and a peppery Monterey Jack, as well as creating a housemade classic French lobster stock — made with the body of the lobster flambéed with cognac, aromatics, white wine, and roasted tomatoes — to incorporate into the sauce

normaspalmsprings

Chef Hervé Glin incorporates a housemade classic French lobster stock into the sauce.

“You want to taste the flavor of the lobster,” he says. “You don’t want flavor of the cheese to overpower. You want just the right balance.”

Beyond his secret-weapon sauce, the French-born Glin has a couple of go-to tricks for perfect mac. First, the large macaroni noodles must be done al dente. (“You don’t ever want to overcook pasta,” he implores.) Then, after tossing them with the creamy base, stock, and half a tail’s worth of chopped lobster meat, the dish is doused with freshly grated cheddar and provolone, then it’s gratinéed (the French term for giving it that oven-browned bubbly top) and crowned with that eye-catching claw just before it hits the table. The result is a hearty entrée worthy of its $35 price.

“It’s a dish you take your time with,” Glin adds. “Have it with champagne. I always eat it with a nice French baguette, of course.”

Gorgonzola Mac & Cheese

Mastro’s, Palm Desert

The steakhouse added the sizzling side to the menus at all its locations in 2003, and it’s been there ever since. “That’s an OG dish right there,” says Christian Brennen, executive chef of Mastro’s Palm Desert, of the classic-looking dish that belies that biting blue-veined Italian cow’s milk cheese. “The Gorgonzola has that pungent flavor that shines through within the sauce, and that’s where that grown-up spin really comes in.”

Four other Italian cheeses —Fontina, Grana Padano, Parmesan, and mozzarella — are also incorporated to create a béchamel sauce that gives the dish its perfectly thick consistency. Getting there takes precision: “A béchamel can go south on you very quickly,” Brennen warns. “Not having enough roux [a classic base of flour and fat cooked together] will make a watery mess. But, on the flip side, you can have too much roux where you get this cementified stuff. You have to hit that sweet spot where it’s really creamy and everything is working together copacetically.”

mastrospalmdesert

The Gorgonzola 
mac at Mastro’s.

After sautéing the sauce and tossing in the elbow macaroni, the dish is finished with another hit of shredded mozzarella and Grana Padano on top before getting a final broil in the high-temperature salamander oven. “That gives it a nice crispy layer of cheese,” the chef explains. “It’s served tableside in the cast-iron skillet it’s cooked in, super-hot and steaming, so when you break into it, it’s stringing off the spoon, which is what you want.”

The dish serves as a beacon of familiarity for some. “If someone is out of their comfort zone, they see mac and cheese and it reels them back,” he says. “It lets them enjoy something that’s nostalgic for them, and we just do it in a way that elevates it.”

As for those wary of the bold blue cheese, Brennan is so sure they’ll love it, he’s willing to provide a sneak peek. “I’ll send out a little taster of the sauce and let them decide. Most of the time, they like it. It’s not what they were expecting. It’s not overly powerful. It’s just something that ties in with everything nicely.”

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