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Column Wed Feb 11 2009
I don't know about you, but I've been craving some crazy amounts of comfort food. Its the time of year where I just get a little whiny and sluggish. And making dishes that are creamy and starchy have been making me feel better.
This craving for creamy, ooey-gooeyness was kicked off by a friend who asked me how to get a good macaroni and cheese dish that had a good creamy texture but was made from cheeses she could easily get at any grocery store and that she could get kids to eat, too.
One of the hardest parts of making baked macaroni and cheese is getting creamy texture, cheesy flavor, and avoiding the greasy film that often floats to the top. So I did what I normally do when looking for cooking tips: I turn to southern-style recipes. There's just something about home-cooking recipes that often have the best techniques.
I found a few things that seemed consistent, but different than what I was used to, so I began to poke around to figure out why these things would work best. The first thing I began researching was cheese combinations. The three most common cheeses I came across were cheddar, American, and Monterey Jack. Cheddar made the most sense because it has that soul-of-the-dish flavor. But I knew that cheddar by itself would just result in oil floating on top, which wasn't what I wanted. American cheese was also popular, which made sense since I knew it melted well. But I also found out that it has stabilizers mixed in that keeps it from separating. So I thought an appropriate ratio of the two might work, but I often find that American just doesn't have the body that I was thinking of when looking for a mac-n-cheese recipe. Which brings me to the other cheese I came across frequently. Monterey Jack isn't very flavorful and doesn't have much in the way of stabilizers, but what it does have is creaminess, thickness, heft, body, and gooeyness.
The other ingredient that I'd never used in making macaroni and cheese but saw frequently in my recipe research was evaporated milk. I knew that evaporated milk was one of the secrets behind getting successful pumpkin pies, but I didn't know any other instance to use it. So I looked at the ingredient list on a can of evaporated milk and was amazed to see carrageenan, a thickener that is derived from seaweed and has been used in food products since about 600 AD. Some studies show that overheating carrageenan can cause bowel inflammation in people who are sensitive. Since we won't be boiling it, I think it's safe in this dish.
Besides first making a béchamel sauce, the dish is really easy to put together. But don't get scared. Making a Bearnaise sauce is so much easier than you think it would be--melting butter, stirring in flour, and then slowly whipping in cream so you don't get lumps. It will take you about 4-5 minutes, and its much easier than you'd think. I honestly think that trying it just once will increase your confidence in yourself as a cook. This dish does make a lot of macaroni and cheese. A lot.
Down Home Mac-n-Cheese
1 pound of macaroni or shells
5 ounces of American cheese
8 ounces of sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese
3 ounces of Monterey Jack cheese
5 tablespoons of flour
4 tablespoons of butter
3 cans of evaporated milk (lowfat and fat free do exist)
2 teaspoons of salt
1 teaspoon of paprika
1/2 teaspoon of dried mustard
1 pinch of nutmeg
1/2 cup of bread crumbs or potato chips
1/4 cup of grated parmesan cheese
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Place a large pot with about 4 quarts of water over high heat. Cover it and let it boil. Once it begins to boil, pour in the pasta. Stir frequently so it doesn't clump together. Read the box directions for how long to cook the pasta. You'll want to cook for about 1 minute less than the package recommends. The pasta will continue to cook once you take it out of the water and it will continue to cook in the oven. By keeping the pasta slightly underdone at this point, you can keep from getting bloated and soggy noodles later. Once the pasta is done, reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta water and drain the noodles. Rinse them lightly with cool water to remove the starch and to stop them from cooking. While the pasta boils and cooks, shred the cheese, or cut it into tiny cubes.
Place a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the butter and let it melt. Once it has melted, sprinkled the flour over the top and stir to combine. Let this cook for about 1 minute while stirring constantly. (Guess what? You just made a roux!) Since we don't want this to be a very dark roux, you'll want to begin pouring in a can of the milk. Add it slowly and stir it constantly. If it seems like its getting lumpy, stop adding milk and continue stirring until it smooths out again. Once you've added in the first can you should have a fairly smooth sauce. Now you can add in the other two cans of milk along with all the dried spices (salt, paprika, mustard, nutmeg). Keep the heat set to medium and stir the sauce constantly for about four minutes. You should slowly feel it get thicker. (Guess what? You just made a béchamel sauce!)
Turn the heat off and add the reserved pasta water. Stir the cheese in one handful at a time until it is all melted. Grease a large casserole dish that is at least 9"x13". Pour the noodles into the dish and spread them out. Pour the cheese sauce over the noodles and stir gently to get the sauce distributed evenly. Sprinkle the top of the casserole with breadcrumbs or ground up potato chips. Sprinkle that with Parmesan cheese. Place it in the oven for 25-30 minutes. Once you can see bubbling along the sides and the top is golden brown, you're ready to serve. Let it sit for about 3 minutes to cool down and setup before serving.
I know this isn't a nutritionally balanced dish, but I'm a purist when it comes to mac-n-cheese. No ham cubes or peas for me, please; however, I do think some spinach sauteed in a little olive oil, garlic, and a splash of balsamic vinegar is tasty enough to become the perfect side dish for a perfect entree.