Behold! Macaroni and cheese…September 25, 2006
You say cheese, and I say “Where? Can I have some?”
Yes, I love cheese. But who doesn’t? Cheese is fantastic. And it comes in so many wonderful, varied flavors. Just gazing at the vast offerings of our Whole Foods cheese monger — a tiny fraction, I’m sure, of the true number of manufactured cheeses — makes me weak in the knees. Tasting all these cheeses is a worthy obsession for a lifetime. Every time I think I’m at the ultimate cheese summit, I discover that there’s yet more Everest to climb. Right now, for example, I’m obsessed with bleu cheese. But there are so many bleus! What can a girl do? Try them all, of course.
But I digress. We’re talking today about macaroni and cheese. And nevermind about the macaroni. The cheese is the thing. Here my husband has combined four glorious cheeses to make a zesty, sharp, melty delicious sauce that smothers the pallid macaroni and raises mac and cheese to new heights. And unlike the familiar Kraft macaroni and cheese — which fond childhood memories will not allow me to knock — this is a hearty, delicious casserole dish. You have to power your spoon through a wonderfully crunchy bread crumb layer to mound out the steaming, cheesy macaroni and its dairy-ful sauce.
My stomach is growling just thinking about it. Yours, too? Read on for my hubby’s recipe.
I’ve been on a bit of a comfort-cooking binge lately. Maybe it’s because it’s fall… but between meatloaf, red sauce and now macaroni and cheese, I’m quite certain that my street cred as a “gourmand” is going down. The “Caviar and Truffles Society” may ask for my resignation. Well, it’s their loss. Because, really, at the heart of this comfort cooking are some very basic yet very interesting things that all cooks can enjoy playing around with.
I tell my wife, somewhat obsessively, that cooking is like jazz. By this I mean it’s about knowing how to do certain things really well and then learning to draw out your chords so they meld differently — and perfectly — with those other notes. This can ensure that some very interesting and pleasurable things happen.
First, because everyone knows macaroni and cheese. Even if you only ate good-ole’ Kraft out of the blue box, you have a sense of what macaroni and cheese truly is. It is pasta carrying cheese flavor. So everyone has some shared expectations when you tell them that mac and cheese is on the menu. But, like a jazz musician, you can surprise them with your own twists on a familiar song.
Second, like improv jazz, every recipe is distinct because mac and cheese has so many elements. You have the pasta, you have the sauce, and of course, you have your finishing touch, the cheese. The pasta is universal, but how you cook it can be different. Some like to make it al dente, coat it with a sauce, and serve it like normal pasta. Others — like us — cook the pasta completely and then bake it for a more casserole-like result.
Similarly, cheese sauces are as infinitely varied as cooks. We do a variation on one of the simplest sauces, béchamel. Béchamel is made by taking a roux (butter and flour cooked together) and then adding milk. We start with this base and then make another traditional sauce, a Mornay — which is just béchamel with grated cheese added. So we’ve made something very traditional and adapted it to our desires.
There are several ways to finish this recipe. You can serve it straight from the stove top, or run it under a broiler, or bake it. We chose the latter; we liked that nice crunch and hearty texture that comes from coating it with a topping and baking it.
The true king in this dish — the jazz soloist, if you will — is the cheese. In fact, it’s the entire reason for the dish. Pasta, schmasta. My wife would tell you in no uncertain terms that macaroni is merely the vehicle for the cheese. And who can argue, really? This recipe uses four cheeses to give the mac and cheese a tangy, cheesy taste that satisfies my wife’s cheese-loving nature.
On a final note, I use panko bread crumbs in this recipe. Panko is a Japanese-style bread crumb; it has a nice lightness that makes a perfect top to this dish. Panko isn’t too hard to find in most big grocery stores — look for it among the soy sauce and other “Asian” items. If you can’t find it, however, panko isn’t essential; it can be replaced by ordinary bread crumbs in this dish.
Four Cheese Macaroni
1/2 lb. elbow macaroni
1/2 lb. sharp cheddar cheese (approx. 1 cup grated)
1/4 lb. gruyere (approx. 1/2 cup grated)
1/4 lb. fontina (approx. 1/2 cup grated)
3 cups milk
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1/2 cup Parmesan
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 tsp. fresh black pepper
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. white pepper
1. In a large pot of boiling water, cook the macaroni and then drain. Shock it with cool tap water to halt the cooking process. Allow it dry for about 10 minutes while you make the sauce.
(NOTE: You want to cook the pasta until it’s soft, not al dente. The pasta should be cooked through because al dente pasta will absorb the sauce you add later, producing a gummy result.)
2. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Making the sauce:
3. Begin with a roux. Over medium heat, melt the butter in a medium-sized sauce pan. Once the butter has completely melted and started to bubble, add the flour. Mix together thoroughly for about 2 minutes.
4. Add the milk to the roux and whisk the mixture. Turn up the heat to medium high and continue to whisk until the mixture begins to bubble slightly around the edges. Turn heat to low.
5. Add the Gruyere, fontina and cheddar, one handful at a time, whisking them into the sauce. Do not add another handful until the previous batch seems to have melted away.
6. Once the three cheeses are incorporated, add the salt, pepper and mustard and stir in completely.
Making the casserole:
7. In a soufflé or similar-sized baking vessel, add the pasta.
8. Pour the sauce over the pasta.
9. Sprinkle the Parmesan over the top followed by the panko bread crumbs.
10. Bake in oven for 45 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes. Serve. Enjoy!