Cedar Park’s Interstellar BBQ serves one of my favorite barbecue sides in the state. The joint smokes pans of scalloped potatoes covered in a generous layer of Parmesan that creates a crust akin to barbecue bark. A recent Eater video of Interstellar’s cooking process reminded me how much I craved those scalloped potatoes. Since I’m sheltering at home in Dallas, it also made me wonder whether the same Parmesan crust could work on a pan of macaroni and cheese.
My standby mac and cheese recipe comes from Fire & Smoke, a book by Chris Lilly, who is the face of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Que, in Decatur, Alabama. It’s a smoked (or baked) version with a browned layer of cheese atop a combination of cheese, butter, half-and-half, and macaroni, of course. Rather than using a béchamel (milk thickened with a roux) as a base, it uses Velveeta, which amps up the cheesiness but not so much the creaminess.
There seems to be a stark divide between Velveeta and béchamel mac and cheese recipes. The former is a shortcut using processed cheese as a stand-in for technique, and the latter sounds like just about the snobbiest way to say “thickened milk.” I set about to combine the two, and, inspired by those scalloped potatoes I was craving, I replaced Lilly’s combination of cheeses, spices, and mayo on the crust for a layer of grated Parmesan. I tried four test batches, and learned that Parmesan alone won’t cut it. Unlike the solid base of scalloped potatoes, macaroni just leaves too much negative space for the grated Parmesan to tumble down into. I also tried several combinations of cheeses for the base to fine-tune the cheesy punch I was looking for.
You may get to the end of this recipe and wonder just how much smoke flavor a pan of macaroni and cheese can take on in just thirty minutes. My answer is, and my guests agreed, that it was just enough to be worth the effort.
Some advice: don’t use pre-shredded cheese. It’s coated with cellulose to keep the pieces from sticking together and therefore doesn’t melt as nicely as cheese shredded fresh from the block. Also, I wanted smoke flavor in the recipe from wood smoke, but wondered if smoked cheeses could work instead if someone wanted to use an oven. I tried smoked Gouda in one batch but didn’t enjoy the flavor, so if you’re using an oven, it’s best to just forgo the smokiness. I also learned that some cheeses simply brown better than others because of their moisture and oil content. Cheddar has poor browning capabilities, and the Journal of Food Science published a “cheese functionality” study demonstrating why low-moisture mozzarella is the preferred pizza cheese. Muenster has similar melting qualities to mozzarella and performed admirably in combination with Parmesan for the topping.
Smoked Mac and Cheese
- 1 cast-iron skillet
- 8 ounces Muenster, grated medium
- 1½ ounces grated Parmesan (keep them separate)
- 16 ounces dry cavatappi pasta (or elbow macaroni)
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick)
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 2 cups whole milk
- 8 ounces Velveeta, cut into ½-inch chunks
- 6 ounces sharp cheddar, grated medium
- 6 ounces Gruyère, grated medium
- Light your smoker and heat it to 350 degrees, or preheat your oven to the same temperature.
- Boil pasta according to package directions in generously salted water until just below al dente. If it’s just a little too chewy to be enjoyable, then it’s just right. (I like the extra curls in cavatappi pasta, but plain old macaroni will also work well.)
- While the pasta is boiling, prepare the cheese sauce. This sauce will come together pretty quickly, so be sure to have all the ingredients grated, measured, and within reach. Melt the butter in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat (not too hot, or you’ll scorch the milk a few steps from now). This will be the pan that goes into the smoker, so make sure it’s both stovetop- and oven-safe. Once the butter is melted, add the flour and whisk for a minute or two, just until the butter darkens a shade to golden. We’re not making gumbo.
- Pour in the milk and stir continuously for another minute or two until it begins to thicken. Add the Velveeta and continue stirring until it’s nearly melted.
- Add the cheddar and Gruyère (stick with sharp cheddar, but you can substitute another young cheese that melts well for the Gruyère—I just really love Gruyère) and stir to melt it. Once the cheeses have completely melted, take the pan off the heat.
- Drain the pasta, but don’t cool it, and pour it directly into the pan with the cheese sauce. Stir to combine well, and smooth out the top.
- Sprinkle evenly with all of the Muenster cheese. Then sprinkle all of the Parmesan over the Muenster. Smoke (or bake in the oven) for at least 30 minutes, or until nicely browned. Serve as soon as it stops bubbling.