Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Birthday Buffalo Chicken Macaroni and Cheese

Today is my birthday. What better way to celebrate than by sharing a fabulous recipe combining some of my favorite things. There are a lot of foods I love, crave, desire. Although I don't generally consume crazy spicy foods (medium-spicy suits me better), I do have a special place in my heart for buffalo chicken, and have shared recipes for Buffalo Chicken Pizza and Buffalo Chicken Nachos on Mission: Food in the past. I also have a lot of affection for macaroni and cheese (I own this shirt, for example), regardless of the variety, and have shared about half a dozen recipes on the blog to date. Here's another.

I've seen Buffalo Chicken Macaroni and Cheese done a couple different ways elsewhere, but I like this version best. I think breading and frying the chicken is a wasted step because the crust will get soft and soggy once it is mixed into the macaroni and cheese (defeats the purpose and wastes time). I've also seen recipes that include a layer of sautéed shredded buffalo chicken meat in between layers of macaroni. This really isn't a cohesive dish to me. It's layered like lasagna, not mac and cheese. I want my Buffalo chicken all mixed up in the cheesy goodness, no separation of chicken and macaroni and cheese. What can I say? I want it my way. And it's my birthday so I can do whatever I want :-P That includes topping this baby with not one, but TWO kinds of bread crumb topping! The first is panko combined with garlic, blue cheese, and buffalo sauce, and then finally a layer of straight-up panko tossed simply in olive oil. Crunch and flavor all around.

I broke in my new Le Creuset baking dish I reviewed for CSN Stores! It was the perfect vessel for this creation :)

As written, this mac and cheese is moderately spicy, but pouring even more hot sauce on top or using extra spicy hot sauce will definitely kick it up a few more notches (if you want to go up in flames). I wanted a balance of macaroni and cheesiness and buffalo chicken, not making it just about one or the other. I think this is a nice middle ground. All parties were pleased by this creation, even my dad who freaked out when he saw the amount of cheese I had grated. Yup, it's over a pound of cheese including the blue cheese in the topping (keep in mind, this serves a LOT of people)... more cheese than pasta. And totally worth it!! Happy birthday to meeeeeeeeeee!!!!!

Buffalo Chicken Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 8 to 10

3/4 lb elbow macaroni
3/4 cup Frank's red hot sauce
6 T. unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups cooked, shredded chicken (from 2 chicken breasts)
1/4 cup flour
4 cups low-fat milk, heated to a simmer
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
12 oz white cheddar cheese, grated
8 oz Monterey Jack cheese, grated
3 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 cup panko bread crumbs
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup crumbled blue cheese
1 T. extra-virgin olive oil

Bring a pot of water to boil. Add salt and the pasta, and cook until just shy of al dente, about half as long as the box suggests (it will continue cooking in the oven). Drain and set aside.

In a small saucepan, heat the hot sauce and 2 T. butter, and swirl together to incorporate. Reserve 1/4 cup of the buffalo sauce and set aside. Add the remaining sauce to the shredded chicken and mix well. Set aside until needed.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Melt the remaining 4 T. butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the flour to make a roux and whisk until it is nice and smooth. Cook for a couple minutes to cook out the raw flour flavor, but do not allow the roux to brown. Add the hot milk a little at a time, whisking in between each addition, until all of it has been added. Cook, constantly whisking, about 5 to 8 more minutes on medium heat until thickened, allowing it to bubble and simmer, but not come up to a full boil. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and whisk in the shredded cheeses, a little at a time until completely combined.

Once the cheeses are all combined and melted, add the pasta and stir to coat. It will be very saucy. Fold in the celery and shredded buffalo chicken. Pour the pasta mixture into a greased 3-quart shallow baking dish. Drizzle 1/2 of the reserved buffalo sauce over the top.

Add 1/2 cup of the panko to a small mixing bowl and add the garlic and blue cheese. Use your fingers to cut the blue cheese chunks into the panko as if you're making biscuits, yielding a mixture of pea-sized blue cheese/panko chunks. Add the remaining buffalo sauce and combine. Crumble the mixture over the top of the casserole.

In the same small mixing bowl, add the remaining panko and olive oil and mix to combine. Distribute the panko mixture over the pasta. You now have a double crust of blue cheese-buffalo-panko crumbs, and regular panko crumbs. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until nice and bubbly, and golden brown. Allow the pasta to cool for a minute before serving, as it will be extremely hot.


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