Monday, January 31, 2011

That Warm and Fuzzy Feeling

Here's my column for January from the Petaluma Post:
As January rolls around the nights are cold and you want to snuggle down on your couch with a warm cozy dish. What is better than mac ‘n’ cheese to hit that spot. It is an all-time classic American dish, but it is not as simple as it sounds; my generation grew up on Stouffers and Kraft mac and cheese, which can hit a nostalgic spot, but it can be so much more that. True mac ‘n’ cheese may require more than boiling water, but it is still easy to make. This classic is making a comeback, from weddings with a gourmet twist or just good comfort food with that rustic homey feeling.

The basic recipe is quite easy; it is what you do with it that counts.

Mac ‘n’ Cheese
3 cups raw macaroni
3 cup light bechamel
3 cup grated cheese (our regular mix is jack, cheddar and provolone)

Light Bechamel
4 cups whole milk
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 Tbl salt
½ tsp ground black pepper

Make a slurry of the oil and flour. Bring milk to a boil, then whisk in the slurry. Stir constantly till thickened. Season with salt and pepper. If lumpy, strain before using.

If serving the mac and cheese the same day, it is okay to use the bechamel hot; but if you are making it ahead, be sure to fully cool it before mixing with the cheese and macaroni. If you mix it hot but do not bake it off soon, the macaroni will keep absorbing the b├ęchamel making the dish dry.

With catering we often make the Mac the day before and bake on-site at the event. I have found that if you slightly undercook the macaroni it allows it to absorb the sauce and not become mushy. Another note is that the macaroni needs to be completely cooled before you combine it with the other ingredients.

The bechamel is a classic French sauce, actually considered a “mother sauce”.

A quick culinary aside, a mother sauce is a starting point for classic French cooking; there are actually four or five depending on who you ask; they are Veloute (broth based), Bechamel (milk based), Demi-Glace (beef reduction), Mayonnaise/Hollandaise (oil emulsions), and the fifth in question is a basic Marinara (red sauce) which has been accepted by chefs even though its origin is not French.

But back to topic; when I say a light bechamel it should be fairly thin, almost the thickness of heavy cream, not thick like an Alfredo sauce. For this dish I use whole milk, not half and half; with the addition of the cheese the extra fat would break the sauce and make it look curdled, so no half and half or cream. On the same note, many of the low fat milks do not cook well and will also break. Stick with whole milk.

Then we come to the cheese- MMM, my favorite part. Here is where you can add in own your taste. I always like sharp cheddar, white or yellow. I have seen recipes with almost any cheese you can imagine. Havarti makes a very creamy sauce, the dill variety adds a delicate flavor. Smoked Gouda will add a full flavor. Blue cheese will make a powerful variation, but do not add just pure blue, cut it with another cheese. Jack yields a mild but good flavor.

Now to the add-ins. We take the basic recipe and can add in all kinds of things to make it gourmet, themed, to pair it with something, whatever your event or cravings need.

One of the favorites here is our Green Chile Mac and Cheese. We add diced green chiles and substitute half of the bechamel with a green enchilada sauce. It gives it a great warm flavor without being spicy, great with grilled steak for a Southwest touch.

White truffle oil is a gourmet addition that takes the classic uptown. White truffle oil contains a flavor profile that is the fifth flavor- umami, a very rich earth touch. Try this with a rich red wine as a great first course.

Add in chopped ham or turkey for a great lunch pot luck dish. What is better than a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, this way serving as a casserole everyone gets served a warm creamy plate at the same time.

Next come the toppings, that wonderful chewy or crispy touch that finishes it just right. Shredded cheese will guarantee that extra bit of flavor and a golden crust. French fried crispy onions for a flavorful crunch. Shredded prosciutto, when baked the flavor will melt into the mac and cheese and crisp up on top like bacon bits. Bread crumbs tossed with a bit of butter or olive oil and parmesan cheese, and maybe jut a bit of fresh chopped sage or thyme.

The next time you are in the mood for Mac n Cheese don’t go for the freezer or the box, take a few extra minutes to treat yourself to a heart warming dish.

No comments:

Post a Comment