Mac and Cheese Balls with Red Wine Dip
Recipe and photo by Tami Ganeles Weiser
Prep Time: 1 hour Chilling Time: 3 hours Cook Time: 1 hour
For my Mindy Kaling fantasy cocktail party, I wanted to offer something for the mother-in-law of her love interest on her TV show, The Mindy Project. Danny Castellano’s mother, aka Ma, is played pitch-perfectly by Emmy award–winning actress Rhea Perlman. I can’t imagine anyone else in that role. So when she meets Mindy Lahiri for the first time (Mindy crashes a fancy birthday brunch Danny has gone out of his way to have her not attend) one of the foods on the menu is fried mac and cheese balls. These are great served plain, but for a party, I love serving dips to gussy them up. Mindy Lahiri has a fixation with Malbec wine. Malbec is a rich red, often at its best when from Argentina, but in addition to its depth of flavor, it can be heavy in tannins. If you don’t love a woody, tobacco or smoky flavor in your wine, use any red you love to drink (that’s one of the few “rules” in cooking: if you won’t drink it, don’t use it; the taste only gets more concentrated). I prefer using a wine with a little extra flavor and an underpinning of gentle sweetness, like a great Sicilian marsala. (Pictured above, without the sauce)
Mac and Cheese:
8 ounces ditalini or any small tubular pasta
½ stick (¼ cup/57 grams/2 ounces/4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
¼ cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 teaspoons ground mustard
6 dried bay leaves, finely ground
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
¾ cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups (8 ounces) shredded Asiago cheese
2 cups (8 ounces) shredded fontina, aged preferred
¾ cup freshly shredded Parmesan cheese
¼ cup freshly shredded Romano cheese
6 saffron threads
6 sprigs fresh thyme
3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
4 large eggs
5 cups breadcrumbs
4 cups peanut, canola or olive oil (not virgin or extra-virgin, please)
Red Wine Dip:
2 cups sweet Sicilian marsala wine, Sicilian Passito di Pantelleria, or Argentine Malbec
4 sprigs fresh thyme
- Make the mac and cheese: Cook the ditalini in salted water according to the package instructions just until al dente. Drain and set aside.
- In a large saucepan set over high heat, heat the butter until it melts and begins to foam. Whisk in the flour and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, whisking constantly to remove any lumps, until the mixture forms a pale blond paste or roux. Whisk in the mustard, ground bay leaves, and white pepper. Still whisking, slowly add the milk and cream and continue whisking until completely incorporated and smooth. Add the saffron and stir well. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the mixture is thickened and smooth. Add the cheeses and whisk for another 1 to 2 minutes, until all are completely melted, incorporated into the mixture, and smooth. Add the drained pasta and stir well to coat thoroughly. (The sauce will be thicker, stickier, and cheesier than a usual mac and cheese.)
- Transfer the mac and cheese to containers, cover, and refrigerate until completely chilled, about 2 hours or up to 2 days before you plan to fry and serve (the mac and cheese can also be wrapped well and frozen for up to 1 week).
- Meanwhile, make the dip: combine the wine and thyme sprigs in a nonreactive saucepan, and heat over high heat (very carefully, making sure that the alcohol does not ignite and cause flames to flare up). Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook uncovered for about 1 hour, until reduced in volume by half. Remove and discard the thyme sprigs.
- When the mac and cheese has chilled, line a rimmed baking sheet (or a couple of small ones, depending upon the room in your refrigerator) with parchment paper and set aside.
- Combine the flour, salt, and pepper in a shallow bowl and stir to blend. Using a small scoop or a tablespoon, shape some cold mac and cheese into a ball about 1½ inches in diameter, or the size of a small ping-pong ball. Roll it in the flour mixture and place onto the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining mac and cheese to make 36 to 40 balls. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, until completely chilled.
- When you are ready to fry, take the chilled mac and cheese balls out of the refrigerator. Set up a breading station: Whisk the eggs in a shallow bowl. Pour the breadcrumbs in another shallow bowl beside it. Line another baking sheet with parchment paper. Line a large platter with a few layers of paper towels and position it near the stovetop.
- Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium-high heat until it reaches 375°F on a deep-frying thermometer (see Kitchen Tips).
- Roll a mac and cheese ball in the egg to coat. Transfer to the breadcrumbs and roll to coat, tapping off any excess. Place on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining mac and cheese balls.
- With a slotted spoon or kitchen spider, carefully place about 4 mac and cheese balls into the hot oil and fry for 1 to 2 minutes on each side, turning them halfway through so they brown evenly. Work in batches; avoid crowding the pan and keep the temperature between 360°F and 375°F. You may notice some cheese oozing; that’s fine, just scoop the fried cheese out of the oil with your spoon or spider and discard. Transfer the fried mac and cheese balls to the prepared platter to drain briefly. Serve immediately with the dip on the side or keep warm on a baking sheet in a 300ºF oven for up to 30 minutes.
- If you don’t have a frying thermometer, you can heat the oil over medium heat and carefully drop in a small piece (about an inch square) of bread. If it turns brown all over and floats to the surface in 60 seconds, the oil is about 350°F to 365°F. If it browns sooner, the temp is higher: 20 seconds and it’s somewhere between 382°F and 390°F; 40 seconds and it’s between 365°F and 382°F. For this recipe, 30 to 40 seconds should do it.