Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Ultimate Comfort Food
What’s cooking? Gourmet Mac ’n Cheese

The New Jersey house -- where we knew what winter really looked like.

Brrrrrrrr! My nose is cold, my fingers are frozen, and I’ve taken to wearing socks everywhere in the house. This New Jersey weather is killing me. But wait – I’m not in New Jersey! I’m in Texas, where we came to get away from winter. Yet the temperature outside is 26º as I write – only 6º warmer than in New Jersey. Hello – come back to me, Texas weather!

What we’re missing here, of course, is the snow. Which is a good thing, as the whole damn city shuts down with even a forecast for anything frozen falling from the sky. For my part, if it’s going to be this cold, I actually have fond memories of being closed up in the house in New Jersey, watching winter make itself known. The snow muffles any noise from nearby traffic, and about the only sounds you hear are of little kids shouting to each other as they crunch around with their sleds. (Or of my large sons shouting at each other as they shovel the driveway.)

Wherever you are, if you’re experiencing a winter blast, it’s times like these that call for comfort food. To my mind, comfort food means warm, soft, hearty. So soups and stews, meatloaf, chili, and baked potatoes all fill the bill. But I know of no dish in the pantheon of great American comfort foods that satisfies like mac ‘n cheese.

About every 2-3 months, I find myself rooting around in my cheese drawer, wondering if anything there is even edible. The goat cheese has taken on some strange neon hues, and that piece of aged Gouda is so hard it scoffs at even my sharpest knife. Finally, I’ve found a way to use those cheese bits before they reach the penicillin/petrified stage.

The problem, usually, is that you have too much to toss without feeling guilty, too little to serve to any guests. Like whatever you had leftover from your Super Bowl cheese tray. You did save those leftovers, didn’t you?

The Cheeses (clockwise, from top left): Tillamook Sharp Cheddar, Brie de Meaux, Il Forteto Boschetto Tartufo (with truffles), aged Gouda, and French Roquefort.

So here it is, the ultimate Mac n’ Cheese. Fast, easy, delicious. And it’s not just the Kitchen Goddess telling you so – I test-drove it with my family over Christmas and again with a friend who claims to be a mac ‘n cheese fanatic. Rave reviews all around. Also from my hubby, which is not nothing.

Kitchen Goddess notes:

1. Aside from being incredibly easy (did I mention that already?), perhaps the best thing about this recipe is its flexibility. The photo caption tells you what I used in my most recent iteration, but the combination was completely different at Christmas, and yet equally delicious. Something about the mysterious flavor that comes through when you combine several really nice cheeses. Go for a balance of sharp and mild. (Too much blue will make you, well, blue.) The most recent time, I purposefully added that semisoft Italian cheese with the truffles in it, for the mushroomy flavor, which was grand. Of course, you can make it with one cheese only, but why would you?

2. Re the pasta – I believe it is a mistake to make this dish with your basic elbow macaroni. The photo above shows what I used most recently. Basically, you want something that most closely resembles a strange sea creature or one of those tropical pincushion flowers – the more little grabby arms each pasta piece has, the better it’ll hold onto your sauce. Try radiatori, which is shaped like radiators, or quadrefiore, a long shape with ruffled edges. If you can’t find one of those, try fusilli.

Gourmet Mac ‘n Cheese

Adapted from The Tasting Table.
Serves 5-6.

12 ounces pasta (radiatori, or quadrefiore, ... or at least fusilli)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus enough to butter the casserole dish
¼ cup flour
3 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon dry mustard
½ teaspoon Sriracha sauce
salt and pepper to taste
12-13 ounces assorted good quality cheese, grated and hard rinds removed (If you use only one cheese, I’d recommend a high quality cheddar, such as Tillamook.)
6 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs

Butter a 2-2½ quart casserole dish. Preheat the oven to 350º.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted water just until al dente. Drain and reserve.

While the pasta is cooking, heat the milk in a small saucepan just to the boiling point (without actually letting it boil). At the same time, melt the butter in a separate medium saucepan over medium heat. With a wooden spoon or spatula, blend the flour into the butter, stirring constantly for 2-3 minutes, making sure the mixture doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan and that the flour just reaches a buttery yellow stage. (This is a roux.)

Remove the roux from the heat and as soon as it stops bubbling, whisk in about 1 cup of the hot milk and stir vigorously – being sure to scrape any bits of the roux from the bottom and sides of the pan – until you’ve eliminated any lumps. Then add the rest of the milk all at once, continuing to stir vigorously with the whisk to fully incorporate it with the roux. Set the sauce over medium heat and bring it to a simmer, stirring constantly with your whisk until the sauce thickly coats the back of a wooden spoon, about 5 minutes. (This is a béchamel sauce.)

Remove the sauce from the heat and season with salt (¾-1 teaspoon) and pepper (¼ teaspoon). Add the dry mustard and the Sriracha. Add three-quarters of the cheese, and stir until melted.

Fold in the cooked pasta, and adjust all seasonings to taste.

Transfer the mixture to the casserole, and top with the remaining cheese. Sprinkle the panko crumbs over the top and bake until brown and bubbly, 35-45 minutes. Don’t over bake – if the panko hasn’t browned after 45 minutes, but the rest of the casserole appears to be cooked, you may want to run it under a broiler for a minute to achieve that toasty look.

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