Not Quite J. Alexander’s Mac and Cheese

Not Quite J.Alexander's Mac and Cheese

As part of my 2017 new year’s resolutions, I would like to make one new recipe every week.  I’ve been in something of a cooking rut lately – creativity has escaped me, thanks to the stress of moving and renovating a house – and am looking for some inspiration and some new foods to drool over.

I have this 3-inch binder full of recipes at home.  No kidding.  Three inches.  Full.  Some of these recipes date back about 16 years to when we were living in Spokane and I was just learning how to cook.  I got some cookbook program for my computer, where you could plug in a recipe and it would provide you with the nutritional information for the recipe.  You could print out a full page, and I would enter all these recipes I found on the ancient internet in those days and print them out.  I have NO idea where many of these recipes came from.  So I can’t really claim them as my own.  Many of them I have made before, and I have really only kept the recipes I like and the recipes I haven’t made yet in this binder.

It should come as no surprise that about 85% of the recipes in this binder are recipes I haven’t made yet.  #lazyaf #orbusyaf #imnotsure

The binder is divided into sections – Beef, Chicken, Pork, Pasta, Veggies, Drinks, Sweets, and Miscellaneous.  Each section also has a folder, and within each folder are all the recipes I’ve ripped out of magazines over the years.  Food Network, Real Simple, Bon Appetit, Saveur, Food and Wine… TONS OF RECIPES.  Over the Christmas break I was sitting on my couch in a rare moment of laziness, paging through a stack of magazines I had to read before tossing them, and of course I ripped out a few recipes, and I said hey, why do I keep ripping these out?  I never make these recipes.  I always make the same stinkin’ recipes over and over and over again.  So that’s where I got the idea for this resolution!

The first one I picked had to be a cozy comfort food recipe because guess what people, it was 15 degrees outside yesterday.  Yes, folks, 15 FREAKING FREEZING degrees.  My new/old house gets very cold and I am finding out that baseboard heating is basically useless unless you turn it up to 80+ degrees.  So I wanted to cook up something that would get my oven going and warm us up from the inside out.

Some time ago, when I first started on Pinterest, I found a recipe for J. Alexander’s copycat mac and cheese.  J. Alexander’s is a restaurant I had been to in Chicago with my friends Liz and Sara on a girls’ night out.  We left the husbands home with the kids – they had a pizza party and some whiskey, and we dressed up and went to a nice restaurant to shove our faces full of all the sluttiest of foods.  I think I remember ordering some really delicious hot spinach dip, mac and cheese, and a steak.  I remember the mac and cheese knocking my socks off.  So when I was perusing Pinterest some time later and stumbled across a copycat recipe for this, I just had to make it.  So I pinned it.  And some time after that I tagged it as a recipe I wanted to make “soon”, so I copied it into a Word document with 5,634 others and printed it up.  I stuck it in this binder.  And then promptly never made it.  #lazyaf #orbusyaf #stillnotsure

I did a quick Google search to see if I could figure out which site this recipe came from, and the one that looks most like the one I printed up is located here, but it’s still not exactly the same.  The top 3 search results are all different recipes.  I might try the others before the year is out.  🙂

Anyway, here are my thoughts on the original recipe:

?The original recipe calls for several chicken bouillon cubes, which I am not a fan of.  I find bouillon to be pretty salty.  I’m sensitive to very salty foods.  So I omitted the bouillon right off the bat.

?I also eliminated the sugar.  I think we add sugar to recipes a lot of times when we don’t need to.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a recipe for tomato sauce that has you add sugar to ‘balance it out’.  I will taste it before and after and not taste a difference.  We don’t need anymore sugar in our bodies, so I eliminated that too.

?There’s a step in the original recipe where  you are supposed to toss the drained pasta with olive oil and lemon juice before adding it to the cheese sauce.  I actually went to the trouble of buying a lemon, squeezing fresh juice out of it, measuring it out and adding it to a little bowl with some measured olive oil, and then forgot this step.  In hindsight, it might be a good thing I forgot this step.  I think it only would have caused the cheese sauce to separate a little more while baking.  So I ended up unintentionally omitting this as well.

?The recipe calls for Gruyere cheese and recommends using half regular Gruyere and half smoked Gruyere.  I looked for smoked Gruyere and couldn’t find it at either of my grocery stores.  I wish I had, because I think it would have kicked this up a notch!  I will probably try this recipe again with the smoked Gruyere!

?I loved the thick, luscious, velvety-ness of the cheese sauce base before I added the shredded cheese to it.  I may use this base on other mac and cheese recipes that I come up with myself.

With all that in mind, and without further ado, here is the recipe as I prepared it!

Not Quite J.Alexander’s Mac and Cheese
Serves 4-6

8 cups chicken stock or chicken broth
8 ounces cavatappi (I actually weighed this)
3 1/2 tablespoons butter, divided
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup half and half
1/2 small red onion, minced
1 clove garlic, grated
1 teaspoon Cholula
2 1/4 cups freshly grated Gruyere cheese – may use a mix of Gruyere and smoked Gruyere
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
Fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup panko

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bring the chicken stock to a rolling boil over high heat and add the cavatappi. Cook according to package directions. Drain, and return cavatappi to pot.

2. While the pasta is cooking, add 1/2 tablespoon butter to a small skillet and melt. Saute the minced onion and the garlic over medium heat until the garlic melts into the butter and the onion softens, about 8 minutes. When finished, set aside off the heat.

3. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. When melted, whisk in flour and cook for 2 minutes, whisking constantly. Gradually add in the cream, half and half, and sour cream, whisking constantly. Whisk until warmed together and thickened, about 2-4 minutes. Whisk in the sauteed onion and garlic mixture and the Cholula. Whisk until well combined. Season with freshly ground black pepper to taste. Simmer gently over low heat, about 15 minutes.

4. Whisk in 1 1/2 cups shredded Gruyere and all of the Parmesan cheese. When thoroughly combined, pour over the cooked pasta. Stir together to combine well. Add remaining tablespoon of butter to a small bowl and microwave until it melts, about 15 seconds. Add the panko and stir until the panko is coated with the melted butter.

5. Pour half of the mac and cheese mixture into a greased baking dish. Top with half of the remaining shredded cheese. Pour the rest of the mac and cheese mixture on top, and top with the remaining shredded cheese. Top with the buttered panko. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the mac and cheese is bubbly around the edges and the panko is nicely browned.