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Beer-battered mac-and-cheese bites

Time 1 hour 45 minutes
Yields Makes about 8 dozen bites
Beer-battered mac-and-cheese bites
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
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It’s one thing to pair beer with food, especially for holidays or events like this weekend’s 50th Super Bowl — where you’ll probably be serving or drinking a lot of it — but beer is also pretty fun to cook with. (After all, we do it with wine all the time.) You can add beer to almost anything, from chili to shrimp boils, bread and cakes to queso. More than just a novelty ingredient, beer adds an extra dimension and depth to a dish, lending notes ranging from roasted barley to sweet fruit, chocolate to molasses.

“Craft beers have a lot of personality, but there’s a lot you can do with regular commercial brews too,” says Jerry Su, chef at Eagle Rock Brewery Public House, the restaurant outlet for one of Los Angeles’ most popular craft breweries. In fact, for a lot of cooking, commercial brews are ideal, simply because the price point is better than for more limited craft offerings. “Coors is a natural for a shrimp boil. With commercial beers, you can also trust that the flavor is consistent. You know what you’re getting.”

First, consider the type of beer you want to use and what style would best complement a dish. Wheat beers — often called “white,” “wit” or “weiss” — tend to be a little more mellow, with crisp, fruity notes that can pair well with everything from fish to grilled red meats.

Su uses Eagle Rock Brewery’s Manifesto beer in a light batter for the restaurant’s deep-fried cod sandwich, topped with a pickled jalapeño slaw and tangy malt vinegar aioli. The Belgian-style wheat beer is not too terribly hoppy or bitter, perfect with fish. “It’s mild,” says Su, “and lends great flavor.”

Other beers run the gamut from fruity and sharp to yeasty and malty. Take a complex stout beer — rich and dark, this beer is thick and creamy, redolent with molasses, coffee and roasted barley notes. The flavors are naturally suited to grilled meats, hearty stews and rich desserts.

Depending on how the beer is used in a recipe, the flavors can change as you cook with them. Add beer toward the end of a recipe, and the notes will largely remain true to the beer’s original character. But try cooking — particularly heating and reducing beer — and the flavors will concentrate and even evolve over time.

For stout and mustard chicken wings, complement a robust stout reduction with whole grain mustard and chopped garlic, along with minced thyme. A little honey and malt vinegar will offset the bitterness of the reduced beer, and grated Parmesan and soy sauce will add a touch of umami to your glaze.

“The key is using your palate and working with the harmony of flavors,” says Su. “Try a small amount [of beer] before adding it to a recipe.”

Keep in mind that as the beer is cooked, most, if not all, of the alcohol will burn off. And unlike wine, the carbonation in the beer can make it a valuable ingredient for certain types of dishes, particularly when it comes to deep-frying.

“Beer batter is something that’s super common,” says Su. Whisked into a simple batter consisting of nothing more than flour, salt and a touch of baking powder, a beer batter puffs up light and crisp. It’s a classic batter for deep-fried fish.

For a slightly different take, use it to batter mac-and-cheese bites, incorporating a sharp, bitter IPA to stand up to the richness of a cheddar- and smoked-gouda-based sauce.

Experiment a bit and you might find yourself cooking with beer frequently and using it in a variety of dishes. Still, always be sure to keep extra on hand — you know, for when you actually want to drink it.

1

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2

Bring a large pot of water to the boil and add the vegetable oil, then the macaroni. Cook the macaroni according to the manufacturer’s instructions to al dente, then drain. Spread the macaroni out on a rimmed baking sheet to cool slightly while you make the sauce.

3

In a medium, heavy pot, render the bacon until crisp, stirring frequently, 8 to 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon, leaving the fat in the pot. Drain the bacon on paper towels.

4

Measure the bacon fat in the pot. You will need 1/2 cup. If short, add butter as needed to have a total of 1/2 cup fat.

5

Heat the fat in the pot over medium heat and slowly whisk in 1/2 cup flour to create a roux. Cook the roux for 2 to 3 minutes until it is lightly colored, then begin to whisk in the half and half and 1 1/2 cups beer. Continue cooking, stirring frequently until the sauce begins to bubble and is thickened.

6

Stir or whisk in the grated cheeses until melted and incorporated, then stir in the bacon. Stir in the macaroni.

7

Spoon the macaroni and cheese into a greased 13-inch by 9-inch baking dish. Place the dish in the oven and bake until the sauce begins to bubble on the sides and the top is faintly golden, about 15 minutes. Remove and cool on a rack to room temperature, then cover and place the baking dish in the refrigerator until the macaroni and cheese chilled and completely firm, preferably overnight.

8

Fill a 4-quart pot with frying oil to a depth of 3 to 4 inches. Heat the oil to maintain a temperature of 350 degrees.

9

Make the beer batter: In a large bowl, whisk together the remaining 3 cups beer with the 3 cups flour, 1 1/4 teaspoons salt, and the baking powder. Whisk in the chives and Parmesan cheese and set aside.

10

Remove the macaroni and cheese from the refrigerator. Cut the macaroni and cheese into 1-inch squares.

11

Working with a few squares at a time, toss the bites into cornstarch to coat, then gently roll them in the beer batter to coat completely. Shake off the excess batter and carefully dip the bites into the hot oil. Fry the macaroni and cheese bites until the batter is puffed and lightly golden and the batter is crisp, about 2 minutes. Drain the bites on a rack, and continue frying. Serve the bites hot.