It may seem like Spring here in the wild wild west but winter still has its icy grasp in other parts of the country. In the East they are breaking all records for snowfall and digging out, although as we always say in Canada, "If you don't like the weather, wait 5 minutes." Today is a holiday being our very first provincial "Family Day" in British Columbia so it seems the perfect chance to spend some quality time in the kitchen recreating your favourite comfort foods. Even with the warm, sunny days this time of year it is not uncommon for me to cling steadfastly to the comfort foods of my childhood despite the rising temperatures. Handed down from generation to generation on stained recipe cards and in tattered notebooks, comfort foods are staples for anyone wanting a hearty meal and a little taste of home. They nourish the soul as well as our bodies. To me there is absolutely NOTHING on the planet as comforting as a delicious, homemade macaroni and cheese for which I make no apologies whatsoever for its cheese, butter and carbs.
There are many trains of thought on what makes the perfect home made macaroni and cheese. Do you make yours with a béchamel sauce? Does it come out of a box? Do you make it on the stove top or in the oven? Is it saucy or not? Do you add tomatoes, truffles or lobster? Whether smooth and creamy, stringy and gooey, or just plain cheesy, everyone has a slightly different take on what constitutes the perfect homemade macaroni and cheese. What we don't want are adjectives like gummy, grainy or oily.
Over the years I have spent considerable time trying a wide variety of macaroni and cheese recipes and through experimentation I have discovered what works best for me. For quite a few years now my favourite macaroni and cheese recipe has been from that Seattle institution Beechers. I have always been open minded, but, perhaps that is just another way of saying I am easily swayed by the promise of a handful of ooey, gooey cheese and a crunchy topping. No matter what method you choose there are some very important factors to making stellar macaroni and cheese.
The quality of the cheese and the type of pasta are very important to a consistent product, but, the moneymaker for a GREAT macaroni and cheese is the sauce. A classic cheese sauce begins with a béchamel sauce, a simple sauce made of butter, flour, milk, and a few seasonings. To keep the sauce from separating, make sure to grate the cheese so it melts quickly, stir the room temperature cheese into the hot milk mixture off of the heat a little at a time. The flour binds the sauce, so that when the cheese is stirred in, the result is creamy and smooth, not stringy and curdled. Coat your pasta with the sauce as quickly as possible after it is rinsed. Overheating the cheese or letting the sauce sit too long can lead to the fat separating out of the cheese, which creates an oily sauce.
“From morning till night,
sounds drift from the kitchen,
most of them familiar and comforting....
On days when warmth is the most important need of the human heart,
the kitchen is the place you can find it.”
Just like muffin tops the best part of a comforting dish of macaroni and cheese for me are the crunchy bits along the edge and the crunchy bread on top as well. Therefore my own personal preference is to bake, but, then again I am not opposed to a cheesy stove top variety either if you want to make it for me. If you have a high sauce to pasta ratio then even when your dish is baked it will still be creamy and luscious.
The cheese that you use for your dish will depend on personal preference. However, understanding the melting properties, flavours and textures of different cheeses can help you select the cheese that's just right in recreating your own rewarding version of this dish. It is important to choose a cheese that melts well. "Light" and "low fat" cheeses will not work well. I wish I could tell you otherwise because I like to shave calories with the best of them. If you have found a brand that does work without being grainy please let me know. I have had success with Cheddar, Swiss, Grueyere, Parmesan, Monterey Jack, Edam, Gouda, Tallegio, Oka, Fontina and Provolone. When it comes right down to it a good aged Cheddar has always received preferential treatment in my recreating this classic. Sharp white cheddar produces the smoothest result, while yellow and extra sharp cheddars can become grainy.
According to the Martha Stewart website, "A good Italian brand of dried elbow macaroni will have the best consistency. Under cook your pasta so that it is the slightest bit crunchy (very al dente) in the centre, then rinse it under cold water. This stops the cooking and washes off the excess starch. You might think that starch would be useful in further thickening the casserole, but it isn't. As it bakes, that extra starch merely expands and lends a mealy texture to your sauce." The classic pasta to use is elbow macaroni. I use "maccarunciell lisci" a bronze extruded pasta from Gragnano, Italy whose rougher surface is the perfect foile for enabling the sauce to cling. It is an artisanal pasta larger than elbow macaroni but a similar shape. Of course you can use any shape of pasta where the sauce with pool in the tubes or crevices such as fusilli, conchiglie (shells), or ziti...but they do call it "macaroni and cheese" otherwise it should be called "pasta and cheese". Wink...wink..._________________________________________
“You'll never know everything about anything,
especially something you love.”
― Julia Child
Quite possibly a classic macaroni and cheese is THE ultimate comfort food. It’s rich, flavourful and filling. It is easy to make, universally loved, and comforting in the extreme. While classic cheddary options are divine, other combinations of cheeses and various ingredients can combine to make a great thing even better. In this recipe from Chef Shawn Cirkiel of Parkside he suggests white Cheddar which is a sharp, nicely meltable choice with that classic flavour. Adding in the Gruyere for an oniony sweetness elevates the dish nicely as well. It's all in your choice of cheese which is why I have loved the Beechers recipe for so long! Parkside is a renowned gastro/pub in Austin, Texas. This dish will brighten your kitchen and warm your belly whether you are anticipating Spring or digging out from under the latest snowfall. Think outside of the blue box and let a comforting, homemade macaroni and cheese work its magic. What is your favourite recipe? Leave me a link and maybe we will have a smackdown.
** Everybody-in-the-Kitchen Macaroni**
based on a recipe by Chef Shawn Cirkiel, Parkside
1 quart (4 cups) béchamel (see below)
1 sprig thyme
1-1/2 cups grated Gruyère
1-1/2 cups grated white Cheddar
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 cups cooked macaroni ( 1 cup dried equals 2-1/2 cups cooked, depending on the size of your macaroni)
½ cup bread crumbs
¼ cup shredded Parmesan
2 oz. (1/2 stick/1/4 cup) butter
1½ oz. (5 tablespoons/1/3 cup) all-purpose flour
1 quart (4 cups) cream (I used 1/2 and 1/2)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Bring béchamel up to a simmer in a large pot with the thyme. Add in the grated Gruyère and white Cheddar. Season with salt and pepper, and add cooked macaroni. Once everything is mixed and warm, place into a baking dish. Top with bread crumbs and Parmesan, and bake in a 400° oven until hot in the middle, sides are bubbling and topping is golden brown. Approximately 15 - 20 minutes.
Béchamel: Melt the butter in a pot over medium heat. Add the flour, turn the heat to low and stir for approximately 3 to 4 minutes with a spoon until the flour no longer smells raw. Slowly drizzle in the cream while whisking, and cook on low heat, stirring constantly, for about 10 minutes until a simmer has been reached. Season with salt and pepper.
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