December 12, 2009

Macaroni and Cheese

As much as I love cheese, I'm not a huge macaroni and cheese person. Sure, I ate my fair share of it when I was a kid, treasured shipments of Easy Mac when I was abroad, and still occasionally buy a box to keep in the cupboard, but to give you an idea of how infrequently I eat it I will tell you that a box of macaroni and cheese is good for at least two years beyond its expiration date. Slightly disturbing, but true.

My indifference to macaroni and cheese applies to eating it in restaurants as well as eating it from a box. I've had a few bites of Matt's mac and cheese from Joe's Garage, but I would never order it for myself because I would much rather blow calories on their fries with basil aioli. The same goes for Yum - I would choose their crispy fries with red pepper aioli over their mac and cheese any day. A few weeks ago, though, my mom, Matt, and I were eating at Nick and Eddie, and it turned out to be one of those rare occasions when mac and cheese sounded really good. To be completely honest it was the lobster that was mixed in with it more than the cheesy noodles themselves that prompted me to order it, but the bottom line is I picked mac and cheese over fish and chips. So basically, fries with good dipping sauces trump macaroni and cheese, but lobster trumps fries.

Although I have no problem going long periods of time without a dose of cheesy noodles, sometimes I do eat it more often than once a year. When I was home over Thanksgiving I went through the collection of old magazines that had been accumulating in the rack next to my bed, pitching a couple old copies of Vanity Fair and W before stumbling upon an issue of Saveur. It dated back to April 2005 (vintage!) and the theme was "American Artisanal Cheese." I still can't figure out how I had the good sense to buy it back then, but then I let it sit around for four and a half years before making use of it. When I saw the recipe for macaroni and cheese I knew I had to make up for lost time. It was my call to duty.

Macaroni and Cheese
From Saveur, April 2005, based on a recipe from Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating

1 lb. tube-shaped pasta
2 tbsp. butter
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 sprig fresh thyme
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 tbsp. flour
3 1/2 cups milk
2 tbsp. dijon mustard
1 lb. aged cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper
1-2 tbsp. coarse bread crumbs

Although the recipe calls for a pound of aged cheddar, I couldn't get myself to spring for an entire pound of pricey cheese. I went with a little less than half a pound of Dubliner and supplemented that with cheaper stuff. In hindsight it would have only set me back a few more bucks to just stick with the aged variety, but the combination of the two produced a perfectly acceptable result so I guess I shouldn't worry about it.

On a side note, I heard on NPR last week that most of the cheddar you buy at the store (like the variety on the left) is only a few months old at most. It came up in a discussion of a 15-year-old cheddar from Wisconsin that's selling for $50/pound.

Start by cooking your pasta until it's not quite cooked through. The recipe suggests cooking it for 6-7 minutes, the box of rigatoni I used said 14 minutes until al dente, and I cooked this for about 8-10 minutes. After cooking the pasta, drain it, rinse it with cold water, and drain it again. Set it aside while you work on the sauce.

As far as types of pasta go you can use penne, rigatoni, macaroni or any other tube-shaped pasta you like.

While the pasta is boiling, grate the cheese. I just kind of guessed with amounts. You need about 4 1/2 cups, and I probably had a generous 4 1/2 cups.

Have your onion, garlic, rosemary and thyme ready.

Melt a couple tablespoons of butter in a large saucepan over medium heat.

Add the onion, garlic, rosemary and thyme. Cook for several minutes until the onion softens.

While that's cooking, get the remaining ingredients ready. The only white-ish wine I had was a bottle of vinho verde that had been opened in my fridge for long enough that it had lost its fizz, and I don't think it hurt the quality of the dish.

Add the wine and cook for 2-3 minutes.

Discard the herbs and the garlic, and add the flour. Cook for one minute. I'm not sure if I overestimated the amount of time the wine was cooking or not, but most of the liquid had cooked off by the time I added the flour.

Slowly add the milk and then the mustard. The recipe tells you to reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, but I didn't have any kind of simmer to maintain after I added the milk. I guess I added it too quickly, so if you run into the same problem bring the mixture to a simmer and then reduce the heat.

Now we get to the exciting part - constantly stirring the mixture for 30 minutes! I suggest timing the cooking so this part coincides with an episode of Jeopardy. That way you can learn fun(ny) things while stirring. Did you know that another name for chewing tobacco is West Virginia coleslaw?

Go ahead and preheat your oven to 400 at some point in here.

After 30 minutes or so the mixture should be thick and creamy and will coat the back of a spoon. Here's a little tip: slippery rubber spatulas are not as good of a tester as an actual spoon.

Remove the mixture from the heat, and mix in 2/3 to 3/4 of the grated cheese. You're supposed to add a handful at a time and make sure the cheese is completely melted before adding the next handful, but I didn't read that part of the recipe until after I'd dumped a bunch of it in.

Season with salt and lots of freshly ground pepper.

Mix the cheese sauce with the pasta.

Pour the mixture into a large baking dish.

Top with the remaining cheese and the breadcrumbs.

Bake at 400 for about 25 minutes, or until the top is golden.

We ate this with pieces of roasted squash to make ourselves feel better about the extreme amounts of cheese.

The only thing I would consider doing differently next time is to bake it in a large, rimmed baking sheet instead of a deep baking dish to increase the surface area of the crusty top.

One more thing, if you want to do some of the work ahead of time you can do all of the steps through adding the noodles and sauce to the baking dish, and then stick it in the refrigerator until you're almost ready to bake it. Take it out while the oven is preheating, add the topping, and then bake it as you normally would.

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Blogger kenikeia said...

For those who don't know me, I've never been afraid to "substitute" in recipes if I didn't have the exact ingredient called for (within reason of course). Kirsten learned that lesson well and has had great success when improvising. With that in mind I want to share the tiny bit of improvising I did tonight with her mac and cheese - the perfect substitution, the very scary middle part, and the end result! I've made a fair amount of mac and cheese over the years but today for some reason I just blanked on the need for MILK!!! But I did have some buttermilk in the fridge that I combined with the small amount of milk I did have. Now for the scary middle part. I slowly added the buttermilk/milk to the bubbly onion mix and at first it all seemed fine. Then, suddenly, weird things started happening and I had onions floating in clear liquid with little clumps of curdling white stuff - yes, I know, not very appetizing. But I hung in there and did my 30 min. of constant stirring (I didn't watch Jeopardy but I did read a long article in Vanity Fair). While it probably wasn't as thick as it should have been, the little curdly (don't know if that's a word but y'all know what I mean) clumps did eventually come back together with the liquid - yay! And, the happy ending, the mac and cheese turned out just fine - looked and tasted great! So, the moral of this way too long comment is "don't be afraid to improvise - and give it enough time to work"

December 14, 2009  

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