The calendar finally cleared a little and we were able to gather our family for a belated birthday dinner for Jackson. Last weekend, everyone descended on our place for a feast of chips and guacamole, homemade sausage rolls, maple caramel popcorn, a mac n’ cheese bar, warm green bean salad, and fresh veggies with dip.
The menu was a hit and successfully spanned the several generations in attendance, especially the mac n’ cheese bar. I wanted to serve something simple for the under 8s, yet needed a dish that would equally delight the adults here for dinner, too. Whenever I’m faced with feeding this type of a crowd, I almost always default to a DIY something. It can be a taco bar, pizza bar, or burger bar, but nothing comforts in the cold weather quite like warm and gooey mac n’ cheese, so that’s what I went with this time.
To prepare, I spent an hour the day before slicing and sautéing an assortment of toppings. I stored them all in lidded Pyrex containers so they could be quickly transferred to the oven for a quick reheating just before I needed them on party day. The pasta was a basic recipe, covered in a garlic breadcrumb topping, and I made two 9” x 13” pans which was just enough for everyone. With plentiful portions of nibbles ahead of the meal, a full candy bar for snacking, and dessert later in the evening, I knew I didn’t need to overdo the pasta part of the meal.
Perhaps the most fun I had in creating the dinner came from making the faux chalkboard signs I hung over the food to provide inspiration for custom creations at the buffet. I didn’t feel like spending a week’s worth of wages in printer ink to achieve the chalkboard background I coveted, so once I created the files for menus I uploaded them to a print shop close to home and paid less than $2 total to have them professionally printed.
I came up with three custom flavours and the guest of honor created "Jack's Mac" based on his favourite toppings from the list below.
List of Toppings:
- Spicy ground beef (recipe below)
- Sliced seasoned chicken breast
- Crumbled bacon
- Sautéed spinach
- Caramelized onions
- Pan-fried mushrooms
- Green onions
- Black olives
- Sour cream
- Blue cheese
- Buffalo wing hot sauce
Fiesta Mac = mac n' cheese + spicy ground beef + black olives + salsa + sour cream + green onions
Veggie Mac = mac n' cheese + caramelized onions + sautéed spinach + pan-fried mushrooms + black olives
Chicken Wing Mac = mac n' cheese + seasoned chicken breast + Buffalo wing sauce + blue cheese
Jack's Mac = mac n' cheese + spicy ground beef + seasoned chicken breast + crumbled bacon + green onions + ketchup
Spicy Ground Beef
This simple beef recipe is perfect for stuffing into tacos or topping onto nachos, but in a pinch it also makes a Sloppy Joe-esque sandwich filling that everyone seems to love.
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 ½ lbs. ground beef
- 2-3 tsp. chili powder
- 2-3 tsp. ground cumin
- 2 tsp. kosher salt
- ¼ - ½ tsp. cayenne
- 3 Tbsp. ketchup
Warm the oil in a skillet set over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for an additional minute.
Add the beef to the pan and cook, breaking the meat up with the back of a wooden spoon. When the beef is browned, the excess moisture has cooked off and the meat is starting to get crispy bits, add the spices and ketchup to the pan. Stir to combine and cook for one more minute. Remove from the stove and serve.