I was really torn about my first subject for the New Year. I want to drop a few pounds, like most of us, so I was going to write about grains, which is actually pretty interesting. But I just couldn’t help myself in talking about one of my favorite comfort foods: Macaroni and Cheese. I know we should all be trying to lose a few pounds, or organizing our lives better, but it has been so darn cold lately I could not resist. The weather we are having makes me crave comfort food and pretty much everyone I know has their own version of this favorite. I am not ashamed to tell you I keep the boxed version in my pantry for my niece and nephews for their “go-to” lunch or dinner request. Making mac and cheese from scratch can become pretty cumbersome; there are 6 steps in making this tasty casserole:
1. Prepare your ingredients (a.k.a. mise en place)
2. Make your topping
3. Make the cheese sauce
4. Cook your pasta
5. Combine your ingredients
I know it sounds like a lot of work, but we all know the results are worth it. Once you get all your ingredients ready, you should make your topping out of fresh breadcrumbs—if you use dry crumbs, they will make the top like a sandy topping. If you don’t have fresh breadcrumbs, use panko. I am a lover of garlic, so I mix garlic, unsalted melted butter, kosher salt, finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (use this for its salty edge) and of course the breadcrumbs, mix it up and set it aside for the final touches.
Now the big decision is what type of cheese to use. I recommend a very sharp cheddar cheese, then Monterey Jack (because it melts well), and/or a Gruyère. Avoid mozzarella, as it tends to become stringy. The cheeses all need to be finely grated, because it helps them melt faster. Then you need to make a roux, which is equal parts unsalted butter and flour. When the roux begins to smell like fresh-baked cookies (sounds odd, but it’s true) you will be adding milk to make a béchamel sauce, which is one of the mother sauces. You should now add your flavor to your béchamel, onions, bay leaf, or any of your personal favorites.
When making mac and cheese, I like to use fresh parsley, cayenne, pepper and nutmeg. It is really up to you what you want to put into your sauce to suit your individual taste, so empower yourself to explore a little. You can also take a shortcut by not making the béchamel and just mixing your cheese into your hot pasta (it’s called the stovetop method). The cream and cheese are melted on a very gentle flame; be sure to stir constantly, just until the cheese melts. Do not rush this process or you will risk the cheese separating, which will turn your dish into an oily mess. The starch in the roux stabilizes the cheese, keeping the sauces from separating as the macaroni and cheese bakes. Cheese is an extremely high-protein food; there’s as much as 30% protein in Gruyère. The protein molecules in food are wound tightly. When heated, they break down and the protein is eager to bind with other unwound proteins, forming a mesh. This is called coagulation, but if the mesh is subjected to too much heat, taking the coagulation too far, it will cause clumps to form. This is why it is very important to use grated cheese so it melts quickly and does not subject the sauce to too much heat. Once the cheese is melted you will add it to the béchamel, you have now made what the French would call a Mornay Sauce.
The other big decision you need to make about this dish is: main course or side dish? Mac n’ cheese can be simple or sophisticated. The list of ingredients can be as simple as peas and/or carrots, or you can step it up to incorporate bacon, ham, pancetta prosciutto, or even cooked lobster meat (yum). You can take the somewhat healthy route and use spinach or kale (sautéed, drained and chopped before you add it). Cauliflower or broccoli (steamed or roasted before you add them), caramelized onions or shallots are all good choices too. Again, this is all your decision. Remember that a recipe is simply a suggestion, or a guide.
Let’s not forget the pasta. Dry pasta made with semolina flour is best for absorbing the cheese sauce. It’s sturdier and more forgiving than fresh pasta, and it’s harder to overcook. The shapes in the dry pasta are best for catching the cheese sauce. Cook your pasta in salted boiling water (I like penne or a double elbow) until it is barely tender, that way your casserole doesn’t get mushy.
Once your pasta is cooked al dente you are ready to combine the sauce and pasta into a bowl, then into a butter baking dish and bake it at 325° degrees for about 15 to 20 minutes.
I did discover while writing this article that it was not the French or the Italians that brought us “mac ’n’ cheese,” but it was the English who made this dish a favorite. They actually made it like a sweet pudding, which to me does not sound too appealing. I prefer bread pudding, but that is for another day.
Enjoy, and Happy 2015 to all!
By Chef K. Marie Paulk