I’m going out on a limb today. I think the limb is sturdy, though. Hopefully you agree.
If you know me well, you know that my favorite snack of all time is Cheez-it crackers. I cannot resist them. In fact, I have banned them from my house because I will eat an ENTIRE box (yes, really) in a single sitting. And I’m damn stingy about it! I actually say “I don’t want to share” out loud when I’m eating Cheez-its (something I normally only say internally, hah). I’m convinced that they are sprinkled with crack.
So, it should come as no surprise that THREE different people from different areas of my life suggested that I attempt a Cheez-it mac and cheese for the blog. My reaction each time: a resounding “OMG YES. HAPPENING.” And so, here we are. I have Cheez-it mac and cheese to tell you about, and it is fantastic.
Now, I am well aware that not everyone shares my intense love for Cheez-its. Or possibly you could be turned off by their oh-so-natural orange color? If you are one of those people, I don’t know that we can continue to be internet friends. Kidding!!! I love you. In all seriousness, though, you could totally swap the Cheez-its out for something more traditional like breadcrumbs or butter crackers. Both will work here. If you’re in my camp, though, or even just have one foot in my camp…try the Cheez-its! You can thank me later.
The mac and cheese base itself is pretty basic. Basic is good here, though! I think with strong flavor of the crust, the mac and cheese needs to be somewhat toned down. Gosh, that sounds like a negative attribute. But I promise it’s not! The flavors in this recipe are incredible together. The mac and cheese itself is SUPER creamy and cheesy and glorious, and the sharp, salty, and herby bite you get from the crust is…well…it’s my own personal heaven. Are you a crust eater? Meaning, are you that person that picks off the crunchy top layer of things like this? WELL. If you are, again, you can thank me later. This crust is loooooaaaded with flavor.
I think it’s totally appropriate to serve something like this at Thanksgiving. Why? It’s a twist on a traditional dish that most (all?) people adore. Plus, with that color, no one could ignore it in the midst of more traditional Thanksgiving side dishes. Hah. If you’re a Thanksgiving purist (like me!), you may want to file this away for another time. I get it. Really, I do. My table this year will be filled with mostly tradition with only a handful of twists thrown in.
But! Don’t file this mac away too deeply. It’s gotta make an appearance in your kitchen soon…like the week after Thanksgiving. Ya know, when you’re in need of MORE carbs and such.
The best (worst?) thing about this mac? It doesn’t call for an entire box of Cheez-its. Which means I was one happy cook.
1 lb short pasta noodles
3 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, grated or pressed
3 tablespoons flour
3 cups milk (2% or whole work best)
¼ cup half-and-half
8 oz sharp cheddar, grated
8 oz fontina cheese, grated
4 oz parmesan cheese, grated
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 cups Cheez-It crackers
2 tablespoons melted butter
¼ cup fresh chives,chopped
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
Additional Cheez-it crackers and fresh herbs, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 350°F and butter a large baking dish.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta until el dente. Drain completely and set aside.
While the pasta cooks, melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the onion and grate in the garlic and cook for 5 minutes, or until the onion is soft. Add the flour, mix well to incorporate, and cook until lightly golden. Slowly whisk in the milk and half-and-half and bring to a gentle simmer. Whisk frequently and cook until thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Add in the cheeses and whisk until melted. Season the sauce, to taste, with salt and pepper. Add the cooked pasta to the pot and toss until everything is well coated. Transfer the pasta to the baking dish.
Place the crackers in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until fine crumbs form. Add in the herbs and pulse to combine. With the machine running, slowly stream in the melted butter and run the machine until everything is moistened and crumbly.
Top the pasta with the cracker mixture and place the baking dish in the oven.
Bake for 30 minutes or until everything is bubbly and gooey and the topping is lightly toasted in spots. Garnish with additional Cheez-it crumbs (I keep these a little coarser for some added texture) and chopped fresh herbs. Serve warm.