Buttery succulent shrimp, perfectly cooked pasta, a smoky and spicy XO sauce infused four cheese sauce, fragrant Thai sweet basil and the BEST crunchy and spicy XO sauce breadcrumbs topping come together to make this showstopping XO Sauce Mac and Cheese!
½ TBLS Chili Oil from the XO Sauce Jar (or melted unsalted butter for a milder topping)
Prepare the fresh ingredients: Chop/slice the Asian red shallots, garlic, red chilies, and Thai sweet basil leaves as indicated in the ‘ingredients’ section.
Combine spices and seasonings: For the mac and cheese, combine all of the spices in a small bowl – the kosher salt, freshly cracked black pepper, garlic powder, crushed red pepper flakes, ground cayenne, smoked paprika, dried thyme, and dried mint flakes. Cover and set aside.
Grate the cheeses: Grate the Gouda, Gruyère, mozzarella, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses using a box grater. Combine ¼ cup each of the mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese in a small measuring cup and reserve separately for the breadcrumbs topping. Combine the remaining cheeses (3/4 cup Gruyère, ½ cup Gouda, ¼ cup mozzarella, and ½ cup Parmigiano Reggiano) for the mac and cheese sauce in a large measuring cup or bowl for the mac and cheese and set aside.
For the XO Sauce Mac and Cheese with Shrimp:
Cook the pasta: Cook the pasta 2 minutes shy of the time indicated on the package in a large pot of boiling salted water. Drain into a colander. Run cold water over the pasta to halt the cooking process and prevent sticking.
Cook the shrimp: Rinse the shrimp thoroughly and pat-dry with paper towels. Place on a large plate and season with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste. Heat 1.5 tablespoons unsalted butter in a large deep sauté pan over medium-high heat. Once melted and frothing, add the shrimp in an even layer and cook for a minute undisturbed. Then flip the pieces over and cook the other side for another minute or until pink and just cooked through. Transfer to a clean bowl and set aside.
Preheat oven: Preheat broiler on high (or the oven grill setting).
Sauté shallots and aromatics: Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter in the same pan used to cook the shrimp over medium-high heat. Once melted and frothing, add the shallots and sauté for a minute until slightly softened. Add the garlic and red chilies and sauté for 30 seconds until fragrant.
Build the cream sauce: Mix in the all-purpose flour and tomato paste and cook for 1-2 minutes to get rid of the floury taste. Slowly pour in the whole milk while stirring until combined well. Stir in all of the spices and seasonings and the XO sauce until combined well. Bring the sauce up to a gentle simmer. It will start to thicken.
Add cheeses: Stir in the Gouda, Gruyère, mozzarella, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (that you reserved for the mac and cheese sauce), one handful at a time, making sure the cheese has fully melted and integrated with the sauce before adding the next handful.
Add the pasta, shrimp, and basil: Switch off the heat and add the cooked pasta and shrimp. Toss until everything is combined well with the sauce. Then stir in most of the Thai sweet basil (reserve ¼ cup for garnish). Transfer the mac and cheese to a 9×13-inch baking dish.
Make the XO sauce breadcrumbs topping: To the measuring cup (or bowl) with the mozzarella and Gouda cheeses reserved for the topping, add 1 tablespoon of XO sauce and ½ TBLS chili oil from the XO sauce jar (or use melted unsalted butter for a milder topping). Mix well to combine, then sprinkle evenly over the mac and cheese in the baking dish.
Broil: Place the dish in the oven and broil on high for 2-3 minutes or until the panko breadcrumbs are crisp and golden brown. Transfer to a wire cooling rack and allow to cool for 5-10 minutes.
To Serve: Garnish with the reserved Thai sweet basil and serve immediately.
XO Sauce. This Cantonese condiment from Hong Kong is full of amazing savory and spicy flavors. It’s made with chili peppers, shallots, garlic, dried seafood (usually dried shrimp and scallop, but sometimes abalone too), and Jinhua pork/ham. While there are several brands that produce XO sauce, Lee Kum Kee’s is the one that’s most widely available outside of Hong Kong. I use their extra hot XO Sauce, but they make a regular XO sauce too which is great if you prefer to make this milder. Look for it it in an Asian supermarket. You can also use a homemade XO sauce too if you prefer.
Pasta. I used pipe rigate pasta, which is similar to macaroni but with a wider hole for sauce to seep into. Any short-cut pasta shape such as penne, farfalle, macaroni, cavatappi, galletti n°44, conchiglie, etc. will work.
Cheeses: Use freshly grated cheese from blocks of cheese. Bagged pre-shredded cheese at the supermarkets have anti-caking agents which make it difficult for it to melt into the cream sauce. Freshly grated cheese from a block will prevent it from clumping in the sauce and will melt more smoothly.
Make it milder. Use a regular spicy XO sauce (not extra hot), less (or omit) fresh red chilies, sweet smoked paprika, and less of (or omit) the crushed red pepper flakes and ground cayenne. Use melted unsalted butter or olive oil instead of chili oil from the XO sauce jar for the breadcrumbs topping.
Baking dish size. You can either use a 9×13-inch baking dish or two 7×9-inch baking dishes.
Storing and reheating. Store leftovers in a sealed airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Reheat small servings in bowls for 1-2 minutes or until hot throughout. Alternatively, cover the dish with a sheet of foil and reheat in a preheated oven at 190°C/375°F for 20 minutes. Then remove the foil and heat for 2-3 minutes or until the topping gets a little crispy again too.
To make it gluten-free: Use gluten-free pasta, a gluten-free flour for the cream sauce, and gluten-free breadcrumbs. Lee Kum Kee XO sauces are made with corn starch and are GF certified.