Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Drifting on Clouds of Butterfat

As I’ve said before in this space, I love food—& one kind of food I’m especially fond of is so-called “comfort food.” Fortunately, I have a knack—so I’ve been told & if I do say so myself—for making a mean version of what may be the king (or queen?) of comfort food, macaroni & cheese—thank goodness, because this regal dish has really been bastardized by the various frozen & boxed varieties now being sold in a supermarket near you; & frankly, even a fantastic soul food joint like the late, great Gravy’s in Daly City, CA served a side of mac & cheese that was no better than “ok” (they did serve the best fried oysters ever & amazing fried chicken, though).

Anyhoo, because I’m all for the betterment of the macaroni & cheese experience nationwide (or, who knows—worldwide: this is the worldwide web, you know), I’m gonna share the recipe & maybe a few little secrets. Upfront, I should say that my recipe didn’t spring, like Athena, fully imagined from my brain. No, it relies a lot on the Fanny Farmer Cookbook, 9th edition, revised 1951, which for my money is the best comfort food & pie cookbook going. So if you wanted, you could kinda parse the same thing out from that source; or if you wanted, you could pretty much get the recipe from my poem “Macaroni & Cheese” dedicated to my dear wife Eberle. In fact, I could’ve saved myself time & posted that, but Blogger doesn’t like long poetic lines or indented lines, both of which come up in the poem. So here goes:
First, don’t be afraid of the quantities of dairy goods you see. As Eberle says, eating macaroni & cheese is “like floating on clouds of butterfat.” So you need to grate about 6 cups of cheddar cheese—I prefer sharp; & you know, the cheese doesn’t have to be super duper, just pretty ok. In fact even Eberle, who likes strong cheeses, agrees that you don’t want to go too fancy with the cheese for this particular recipe. In the meantime, cook 4 cups of elbow macaroni just as you normally would— typically 9-10 minutes—& make sure to do the good pasta practice of running cold water on the macaroni when it’s done, ‘cause you don’t want to overcook it.

Now it’s time to make the white sauce, which is one of two keys to the whole macaroni & cheese thing. Melt 6 Tbsp of butter in a saucepan, then whisk in a mixture made of the following:

6 Tbsp flour
½ tsp of ground mustard
¼ tsp of paprika
ground pepper to taste—I like lots

Whisk this to a smooth consistency, then slowly add in 3 cups of milk (see, everything except the macaroni is in multiples of three—what does that mean?), whisking all the while—steady & consistent whisking for those not familiar with white sauce (steady & consistent whisking also for those who ARE familiar with white sauce, but we presume they know this). Bring this to a boil, whisking all the while, & let the sauce boil for two minutes, then reduce the heat & let the sauce simmer for 15 minutes (DON’T stop whisking!) Now those of you who are real cooks no doubt have gas stoves, & so have no problem reducing heat quickly & efficiently. For those of us with electric ranges this isn’t so straightforward. Wha
t I do is have a burner already turned to low heat, & switch the sauce to that burner after the 2 minutes of boiling—works like a charm, because if you’ve ever tried to deal with boiling milk while waiting for a red-hot electric burner to lose temperature—well, it’s not a pretty sight. By the way, having a second burner in reserve also works like a charm for rice made on an electric range—it’s pretty much foolproof.By now, you should have your oven heated to 400 degrees. You assemble the ingredients as follows in an oven-safe pot or casserole (more on that in a moment):

layer of macaroni
layer of cheese
layer of macaroni
layer of cheese
layer of white sauce
layer of macaroni
layer of cheese
layer of white sauce

At least that’s the number of layers I get in my stoneware oven pot; & let me tell you, if there’s any chance you can use stoneware, please do so. I’ve also made this for my folks at their old home in Florida in a glass casserole, & while it was certainly good (they liked it a lot), you don’t get quite the same killer crust with glass as with stoneware. The pot you see in the pic at the top of the post is pretty crucial to this recipe.

Bake the macaroni & cheese uncovered at 400 degrees for about 40-45 minutes. You know the whole spiel about oven temps varying, etc. etc. so that’s a caveat. You want to see a golden brown top to indicate that a good crust has formed, but ideally you still want to see it bubbling a bit, too—not dried out.

The pix are from lunch preperations today—had a lovely lunch with our Mesa friend, Sister Rebecca Mary of Marymount Hermitage—she provided a tasty melon salad. She claims to be a big fan of my macaroni & cheese, & she provided the luncheon entertainment with a story about fending a rattlesnake off from the steps of her hermitage cottage with a broom. Besides being adept at hand-to-hand combat with venomous critters, she’s also a devoted uker, & we had a nice hootenanny after lunch with ukes galore.

The great foodie philosopher Brillat-Savarin said "A dinner which ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye." No danger of any such thing here!

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