Have I ever talked about how I swear cream sauces release mass amounts of endorphins in my brain? No? Hmm. That's mostly because I feel like, for someone who's "into food," admitting you like cream sauces is a little like claiming you're "into film" while secretly stacking your DVD queue with Jennifer Anniston flicks. Nonetheless, I love them. And I eat them. Probably more than I should. There. I said it.
This brings me to my next point. F*ck Anthony Bourdain. Okay okay. Not really. I like him. I do. I thought Kitchen Confidential was very inspired. I've watched (and cried over) WAY too many No Reservations episodes, and I'm now nearly done with Medium Raw. But this latest book, and its sometimes wistful focus on haute restaurant cuisine has me riddled with anxiety. And it's not singular in doing so. Sometimes this whole "Gourmet, Local, Organic, Authentic, Seeking-Out-The-Best-Most-Obscure-Purveyor/Restaurant-Of-A-Certain-Item/Dish " movement makes me really frustrated. I'm in support of it. I think it's REALLY necessary. Quality matters. Sustainable practices, important. Small mom and pop shops are vital. Creativity counts. I wonder, though, with all this focus on ingredients, if we sometimes miss the point: about dining being an event that encompasses more than the food. An event that's ultimately focused around having a great time, whether you're dining solo or with a group of friends. I don't want to lose the ability to sit down over a $5 dollar pizza with a group of friends and have a fantastic evening. (Not that I'm suggesting Anthony Bourdain and the like would be against this, because, well, just read his book or watch his show for 5 seconds and you'll see.) I don't want to stop being proud of the dishes I make just because I'm unable to afford the very best and authentic ingredients. Or quit believing that, yes, high dining in fancy restaurants is wonderful, but so is a simple meal at home on a quiet evening.
Do what you can, the best you can, when you can. Maybe that's all I'm asking. And maybe that really is something like sitting dockside in France with a platter of freshly shucked Belon oysters. But maybe it's not. It's not something I can do. (Not yet, anyway. ;) ) I say be proud of what you can do. Maybe what you can do is whip up a pan of fresh macaroni and cheese, because deep down, in some primal way, dairy products make you happy. Dairy products that aren't necessarily made by European monks in caves who only hum Beethoven and flog themselves while making their cheese.
This macaroni and cheese recipe can get as fancy, gourmet, artisinal, blah blah blah as you want. Or, like the original recipe, you can just use cheddar and monterey jack. It still turns out amazing. My version falls somewhere in the middle. What I love about this recipe is that it's impossible to mess up. It comes from Cooks Illustrated's test kitchen and it never ever separates, never gets oily or dry, even when reheated the next day. It's thick and creamy, and coats every noodle in liquid velvet. I'll print the original version. Then I'll give you the version I make.
WARNING: Just looking at a pan of this stuff will make you gain 5 pounds. I suggest you do not step on a scale for at least a week after consumption. Better yet, if you plan on adding this into your cooking repertoire, get rid of your scale altogether.
Classic Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 6 to 8 as a main course
"It is crucial to cook the pasta until tender - just past the "al dente" stage. In fact, overcooking is better than under cooking the pasta. Whole, low-fat, and skim milk would all work well in this recipe. The recipe can be halved and baked in an 8 inch square, broiler safe baking dish."
Bread Crumb Topping
6 slices of large white sandwich bread, torn into rough pieces
3 tablespoons of cold, unsalted butter, but into 6 pieces
Pasta and Cheese
1 pound of elbow macaroni
5 tablespoons of unsalted butter
6 tablespoons of all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons powdered mustard
1/4 teaspoons cayenne (optional)
5 cups of milk
8 ounces of Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
8 ounces of sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1. For the bread crumbs: Pulse bread and butter in the food processor until crumbs are no larger than 1/8 inch, ten to fifteen 1-second pulses. Set aside
2. For the Pasta and Cheese: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and hear broiler. Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in Dutch oven over high heat. Add macaroni and 1 tablespoon salt; cook until pasta is tender. Drain pasta and set aside in colander.
3. In now-empty Dutch oven , heat butter over medium-high heat until foaming. Add flour, mustard, and cayenne (if using) and whisk well to combine. Continue whisking until mixture becomes fragrant and deepens in color, about 1 minute. Gradually whisk in milk; bring mixture to a boil, whisking constantly (mixture must reach full boil to fully thicken.) Reduce heat to medium and simmer, whisking occasionally until the consistency of heavy cream, about 5 minutes. Off heat, whisk in cheeses until fully melted. Add pasta and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is steaming and heated through, about 6 minutes.
4. Transfer mixture to broiler-safe 13x9 inch baking dish and sprinkle evenly with bread crumbs. Broil until crumbs are deep golden brown, 3-5 minutes, rotating pan if necessary for even brownness. Cool about 5 minutes, then serve.
Here are the adjustments I make to mine. I use just over 5 ounces each of sharp cheddar, monterey jack, and smoked Gruyere. I also saute several shallots and pancetta to include when I add the cheese. I almost always use 2% milk. According to the footnote in the recipe, it's the monterey jack cheeses' high moisture content that gives the sauce a nice smooth texture, so I would eliminate all of it, should you choose to change things up. The flavor is subtle, though, so it's best when paired with a stronger flavored cheese.