Sunday, February 21, 2010

Stir Crazy--stovetop mac & cheese part one

I confess, I still occasionally eat macaroni and cheese from a box mix. I’ve graduated to Annie’s Organic, and I also enjoy Trader Joe’s. I have friends that rave about their homemade baked mac & cheese, so I went hunting for recipes.

There’s a buttload, make that a metric buttload, which is 3% higher than an Imperial, of mac & cheese recipes out there. Most of them called for baking, and about ninety percent of them called for breadcrumbs, often panko,  for a crunchy topping.

I can see, academically, where the breadcrumbs would make a nice addition of texture, but for me personally, that’s not what I want. I want firm pasta, creamy  sharp cheese, maybe a little spice.  Comfort food at its most basic, but sophisticated enough to be enjoyed by an adult

So, off I went on my own to design a recipe, but this is purely stovetop. There’s plenty of room for topping and baking if you wish, but I don’t feel this is necessary; neither did my sweetie. Austin the minimalist roommate, had no objection, and really enjoyed the meal.

3 T butter (unsalted)
3 T flour (I like Wondra for quick mixing, but any flour will do)
1 Cup yogurt (I may change this in future recipes, it didn’t add much sharpness, and the texture was a little gummy in the leftovers)
2 Cups Whole Milk
3 Cups of cheese. I wanted a strong cheddar taste, yet I wanted creaminess and cheddar does not melt well, it tends to get oily and grainy. A lot of the recipes called for bacon, and I figured I was dealing with enough fat with the butter and cheese, so I thought I’d use smoked gouda. I ended up with about a 3-1 mix of English Coastal Cheddar (gotta love Trader Joe’s, though I’m not averse to Cracker Barrel’s NY Sharp White) and smoked gouda. Next time, I think a little more gouda.
½ t paprika (because it was common in most of the recipes and I like the flavor)
½ white pepper a little less harsh than black; personally I think white pepper is underused. It also does not have mold, which some people are sensitive to

1 pound pasta of your choice. Some folks will always go with elbows, this time I went with fusilli. Its twisty texture holds sauces well.

Grate your cheese. I really like using this gadget instead of your basic standing grater. It’s a little more fun, it’s generally easy to work with and you are much less likely to get blood, fingernails or skin in your cheese (it’s happened). 
Melt butter over low heat in a 2-quart saucepan. Slowly stir in flour to make a roux. Toast the roux on slightly higher heat for about three minutes, then slowly add your milk and yogurt.

It occurred to me that this might be a recipe that could be fun to make with your kids, If applicable. The recipe is pretty easy, and if your offspring likes to get involved with the kitchen, there’s the grating of the cheese, and in the actual stovetop, a lot of stirring, because you do not want a lumpy cheese sauce.

Add cheese, a little bit at a time and keep stirring until sauce is smooth. 
Stir in paprika and pepper. Many recipes called for dry mustard, but I skipped that. Were I to add mustard, I’d get something good, stone-ground and grainy and stir it in at the last minute.

Boil water for your pasta. While you’re waiting for the water to boil, goose the heat under the cheese sauce up to about 75% or medium high. Keep the heat there until the sauce starts to bubble and turn the heat back to low.

Once your pasta water is ready, set the timer to about a minute before the package says it will be aldente.  (when you cover it with hot cheese sauce, it will cook the rest of the way).

Cook pasta, drain, return to pot, pour over cheese sauce. Mix thoroughly. Spoon into bowls, top with any leftover shredded cheese.

Some of my favorite mix-ins for mac & cheese:
Chile powder
Black pepper

What are some of yours? Maybe I'll try that in part two, which will be in a couple of weeks.

Next week, a fun entry where my sweetie and I make garam masala, including toasting the spices!

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