Friday, January 04, 2008

Friday Foodie - Mac and Cheese #1

Friday Foodie

Mac and Cheese #1

Flavor: varies based on the spices

Texture: see discussion below

Satisfaction: see discussion below

Ingredients: Pasta, cheese sauce (cheese, butter, cream, spices)

Discussion: I think the food that ended 2007 as my new fascination will be the food of 2008. When I was a child, the only type of macaroni and cheese we ever ate was from the blue box. The next nearest thing to mac and cheese was a casserole with pasta, ham (or spam), and velveeta. As a result, I grew up thinking macaroni and cheese was a salty unsatisfying food.

Anyone who knows me well, and my Friday dinner companions generally do, knows that I sometimes like food or drink with my salt, so for me to call a dish “salty and unsatisfying is really saying something.”

However, in 2007, I started reading Eric’s comments about S’mac in New York I begged him to take me there. I was so anti-macaroni and cheese, that I couldn’t imagine the journey he would make across town to eat at a restaurant that only served mac and cheese. When I made the visit to New York in October he took me and I discovered macaroni existed outside the blue box and it opened my mind to the possibilities.

Since that visit, I have spent considerable time in the cheese aisles at the grocery store and have started experimenting with good sauces. Do some reading about cheese to see what you like and what your wallet and diet can afford. To date, I have avoided anything premade, as part of the joy in cooking is manipulating the taste to just what you want it to be.

The basic cheese sauce includes milk, cheese, and butter. Many of the recipes I’ve found call for egg to be added, but for my taste that creates too much of a custard feel to the sauce and when baked it becomes to solid and fluffy to be anything I would continue to call “sauce.” From there it can be taken myriad directions with the selection of cheeses used, spices added into the mix, and level of creaminess. All in all, a sauce can be made that matches your taste.

When selecting the ingredients, do not skimp and do not attempt to be too healthy with it. Low-fat and fat-free cheeses do not melt well and end up creating a trans-fat-full greasy mess. Macaroni and cheese is a home-style comfort food and deserves to have full taste and texture which you do not get from substandard ingredients. When you eat mac and cheese be prepared for a meal full of carbs and fat and just accept it for it’s pleasing goodness.

Making the sauce does take time. Don’t rush the process and use the proper tools. I rely on the double boiler to make my cheese sauces, sure the microwave will melt the cheese and other ingredients, but cooking it in the double boiler where you have to stir and mix the ingredients as they melt gives that “grandmother’s touch” to the food and makes it taste so much better. Melting the cheese on direct heat offers too great a chance for scorching and thus ruining the entire pan.

It is also important to select good pasta. When making macaroni and cheese, it is not always necessary to stick with the namesake pasta, I have tried a variety of pastas with it and found that it works others as well, but they need to be a pasta that has a shape to collect the cheese – not a flat pasta like fettuccini or solid like spaghetti. Now that most grocery stores are selling pastas made from a variety of grains, be aware that changing the grain changes the flavor and the pasta may not meld with the cheese in the same way. Last week I used a whole wheat penne with a spicy muenster/mix cheese sauce; it felt like cornbread in my mouth. The taste was awesome, but the texture caught me off guard, so be prepared for any kind of change when you experiment with the pasta because that is what gives the dish its substance.

Prepare the pasta according to package directions prior to mixing with the cheese sauce. Generally macaroni and cheese is baked after the ingredients are put together, so I like to leave it somewhat al dente so it can continue to absorb some of the liquids from the sauce.

A basic cheese sauce can be made from 1 cup milk or half-and-half, 2 cups grated cheese (or small cubes), and two tablespoons of butter. Mix all together in the top of a double boiler and melt. If the cheese is a very dry one, sometimes I will cut the amount to 1 ½ cups and use ½ cup of cream cheese as that helps the sauce reach the creamy texture I like. I have found some of the drier cheeses can maintain a gritty texture even after melted. The cream cheese minimizes that grittiness without influencing the flavor.

As I perfect some specific recipes, I will be including them throughout the year. Until then, welcome enjoy playing with the basics on your own and create your own signature mac and cheese and enjoy hearty eating through 2008!

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