Monday, February 15, 2010

After Three Decades, A Mac 'n' Cheese To Love.

When I was a kid in Charleston County's public school system, one of the mainstays of our lunches was macaroni and cheese. 

To be honest, I can’t attest to whether it was, indeed, "gross and raunchy," although I can testify to the fact that most servings returned, untouched, to the kitchen.  I can’t say the pasta was overcooked, although I can say I never identified a single, unbroken piece of macaroni.  I can’t say it was under-seasoned, but puh-leaze – it was served on a institutional green divided tray.  Need I say more?

Not one morsel of that thick-skinned, rubbery, squared-up hockey puck crossed my lips.  Not once.  Instead, I set off on a course of avoiding macaroni and cheese for over 30 years.  This, despite being born and raised in the South, where the ubiquitous casserole graces most everyone’s holiday dinner table, church potlucks, work picnics and post-funeral home visitations.

I’m not saying we never had mac and cheese growing up.  The Winn-Dixie on Harborview Road often had that familiar blue box (their generic version, not Kraft) on sale, four for a dollar.  Prepared with milk and Parkay margarine, it was a predictable sidedish (along with canned green beans) to canned Hostess ham.

However, as soon as I was old enough to get away with saying “no thank you,” which, honestly, wasn't until I was old enough to vote, I never let the stuff  -- blue-boxed or otherwise -- touch my plate.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my own Darling Daughter became a mac and cheese aficionado, frequently ordering it for dinner when we're out, and, based on friend’s recommendations, suggesting restaurants serving superior mac and cheese.

Adding to the pressure, Son recently told me he was assigned to bring mac and cheese (for 16) to Room In The Inn (a church-based program providing food and shelter to the homeless).  OK.  Maybe it wasn't exactly a sign from God, but it was plainly time to give the homely dish another try.

It took some work, though.  I didn’t know what I liked – custard-based (with eggs) or roux-based (with flour).  I just knew I didn’t want what I’d had.

Lucky for me, I had a partner in eating.  Darling Daughter was more than willing to explain what makes a good mac and cheese.  The pasta has to be “loose” – which meant a roux-based, not egg-based, sauce.  It can’t taste like too much cheese – which mean 100% extra sharp cheddar was out.  And it couldn’t be too brown on top – which is easily resolved with a bread crumb topping.

After a couple of attempts, though, we’ve come up with what we think is a pretty darned good mac and cheese.  So good, I’ve even had it for breakfast.  Twice.

And suddenly, I’m looking forward to the next church potluck.  Sign me up.

Darling Daughter’s Macaroni & Cheese

2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 ½ cups milk
½ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon whole grain Dijon mustard
½ lb. cheddar cheese (not extra sharp), grated
¼ lb. fontina or gouda cheese, grated

¾ lb. macaroni (about three cups)

¼ cup breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons butter, melted
¼ lb. pancetta, diced (optional)

Make sauce.  In medium saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons butter and flour together over medium heat, stirring constantly.  (You’re making a “roux.”)  When well-combined and somewhat thickened, flour will have lost its “raw” taste.  Stir in red pepper flakes and 1 teaspoon kosher salt.  Using a whisk, very gradually stir in milk, whisking constantly.  Stir in cream and mustard.  Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes, or until well-thickened and velvety.  Whisk in grated cheese, stir until smooth, and remove from heat.

Cook pasta.  In a large pot of well-salted (about 1/4 cup salt to 8 cups of water) boiling water, cook macaroni until barely done (“al dente”).  Before draining, reserve about 1 cup of hot pasta water.  Quickly drain (for this dish, it’s best if the pasta is not drained very well), and stir into cheese sauce.  Use your judgment here.  If the pasta mixture isn't "loose" enough, stir in some of the reserved pasta cooking water.  The resulting mixture should be loose, not too sticky.

Assemble. Stir together topping ingredients – breadcrumbs, melted butter and pancetta (if using).  Pour macaroni and cheese into casserole dish (or 6 to 8 individual ramekins).  Use fingers to sprinkle topping over.  Bake in preheated 400 degree oven until hot and bubbling – about 30 minutes.
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