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Sunday, February 03, 2008
Resist the Box: Homemade Macaroni and Cheese
Before I start talking about Homemade Macaroni and Cheese, I wanted to say hello and introduce myself, as I'm a new blogger on BAB. I am a writer, editor, and mother of two 7-year old twin girls. I am also obsessed with food and so spend a lot of time thinking about what to feed those two girls (as well as my husband and myself). Meals at our house are often a struggle between what I want to make and what they want to eat, with compromises on both sides. Luckily we all have pretty open palates so everyone is usually happy.
Last Friday night was a perfect example for how this little game of tug-of-war works. I wanted to make a brisket (a lovely Prather Ranch grass fed cut that I got at the farmer’s market). My daughters, however, had other plans. When I mentioned in the morning that I would make them a barbecued brisket during our traditional Friday Movie Night dinner, they both looked at me and frowned. Maddie said she wanted macaroni and cheese and Sophie agreed. As we were late for school, I ignored the comment so we could finish our morning routine, find shoes and rain jackets, and leave the house five minutes late for the bell. Although I like my children to want to eat whatever I make, my general rule is that I'm the mom and the cook, so I get to decide and I was determined to make brisket. Later that day, however, as I walked toward the grocery story in the cold rain, shivering and trying not to step in puddles, I realized that my daughters might be on to something. It really was the perfect day for homemade macaroni and cheese, all oozy and gooey and warm. My cold body started to crave it.
One thing I love about macaroni and cheese (other than its wonderful comfort food appeal), is that you can tweak it to suit your family’s needs. You can pretty much use whatever cheeses you like: I’ve had Italian versions with mozzarella and provolone, traditional versions with cheddar and American cheeses, and more epicurean types made with a roux, beautiful European cheeses, and heavy cream. You can add meat (such as ham, which I think tastes delicious), vegetables and herbs (parsley, peas, spinach and wild mushrooms are great), eggs (to fluff it up in the oven), or even toasted nuts (which I once saw and, I must admit, found appalling).
At our house, however, macaroni and cheese is usually simply what the name suggests –macaroni, cheese, and some milk and butter along with seasonings for a little extra flavor. I'm a food purist (well, at least most of the time) and so don't like to add too many ingredients to the dish as I want to taste the delicious cheese and pasta flavors. I also like to use at least three different types of cheeses as it gives the dish a richer and more nuanced taste. It's great to throw in something creamy (I like medium Tillamook cheddar or Colby), something sharp like aged provolone, Parmesan, or Gruyère, and something with a slightly distinct taste like Fontina or Cotswold.
A general rule for homemade macaroni and cheese is to make sure that every piece of pasta is covered in some creamy goodness. You don’t want a rude awakening from comfort-food nirvana by biting into a piece of plain pasta instead of bubbling savory cheese-coated noodles. Likewise, it's unappealing when the cheese clumps together in separated blobs.
To coat each piece of pasta, I make a roux and then add in some warm milk and whatever creamy cheese I'm using, which makes a thick cheesy sauce. I then pour this over some previously cooked al dente pasta. I try to cook the pasta ahead of time, so it's room temperature or cool when I use it, which in turn brings the cheese sauce down in temperature when you mix them together. The pasta, now blanketed in the cheese sauce, is ready to mix with the other cheeses. Because the pasta isn't hot, the other cheeses don't immediately melt when you add them in, allowing them to instead melt into and permeate the pasta while it's baking. This also allows the three cheeses to maintain more distinct flavors in the final dish as they melt on their own instead of together. Once I add the pasta to the buttered baking dish, I top it all with fresh breadcrumbs (usually heels of sliced bread chopped in the Cuisinart), which end up melting into the cheese on top to create a crunchy and slightly salty topping for the dish.
When I pulled the final dish from the oven last Friday, the cheeses were bubbling up and the top was crispy and crunchy. I served everyone a healthy portion alongside a plate of green salad (the cool crispness of the lettuce nicely accented the hot cheesy pasta). So there we were, kids and adults devouring homemade macaroni and cheese while watching Home on the Range. As I sat there watching Maggie and Mrs. Calloway outwit Alameda Slim, I realized this was really the perfect dish for our evening. If you’re unfamiliar with the movie, Maggie and Mrs. Calloway are cows, and so it would have been unseemly to have the beef brisket for dinner.
Homemade Macaroni and Cheese
1 lb smallish pasta (such as celentani, small penne, or elbow)
1 ½ cups grated and packed Tillamook medium cheddar or Colby cheese
1 cup grated and packed Fontina or Cotswold cheese
1 cup grated and packed Gruyère, Parmesan, or aged provolone cheese
2 cups whole milk plus ½ cup to pour in later
1 Tbsp butter
1 tsp flour
½ - 1 tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
A dash of nutmeg
½ cup fresh bread crumbs
1. Cook pasta until al dente. Run cold water over it in a colander until it cools. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Butter a large casserole dish.
3. Grate cheeses and set them aside.
4. Heat the milk in a sauce pan, being sure not to let it boil. Turn off heat and cover until ready to use.
5. In a medium sauce pan, melt butter on medium heat. Whisk in the flour when it starts to bubble, making a roux .
6. Add in the 2 cups of warm milk, whisking to incorporate it into the roux. Warm on medium until small bubbles start to form in the milk.
7. Turn off the heat and add the Tillamook or Colby cheese, stirring until it evenly melts and becomes smooth.
8. Add a ½ tsp salt, the nutmeg and the pepper to season.
9. In a large pot or bowl, mix the cooled pasta with the cheese sauce. Stir until the sauce is completely incorporated. Taste a piece of pasta and add the other ½ tsp of salt and more pepper if desired.
10. Add in the other two cheeses and gently stir so most of the cheese retains its grated appearance.
11. Place pasta and cheese in the buttered casserole dish and drizzle the remaining half cup of milk on top.
12. Spread the fresh bread crumbs evenly on top.
13. Oil a piece of aluminum foil large enough to cover the casserole dish and tighten it around the sides, oil side down.
14. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes or until the cheese starts to bubble up from inside the pasta.
15. Uncover the dish and bake for another 5-7 minutes or until the top starts to nicely brown and crisp up. Serve immediately.
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