Thursday, March 5, 2009

Treat Yourself to Comfort Mac and Cheese

Having gotten a little behind in my reading, I recently parked myself on our living room couch with a stack of magazines close by. I've been eyeing the stack longingly for months now, and it grows weekly.

I've been known to read summer vacation issues in December and Thanksgiving issues in February, but since we've been having such beautiful, Southern California weather (and a time change), I was in the mood for something a little more relevant for spring--until I came upon this month's issue of Bon Appétit. The Lamb and Eggplant Shepherd's Pie seemed fitting for March, but I have to admit that I was a little thrown by "Comfort Food Now" emblazoned across the top of the cover. I don't exactly think of March as comfort-food month. That's more of an October stronghold, I'd say, but I was willing to go along with it because I needed my Bon Appétit fix.

Boy, am I glad I did. Suddenly, somewhere between the Yukon Gold potatoes and the Rice Pudding, or maybe the Spanish Grilled Cheese Sandwiches and the Caramel-Apple Crisp, I got it. Give the people what they want. With economy crashing and bad news abounding, give us a little harmless comfort food. We don't have to feel as guilty about eating those Yukon Gold Cinnamon Rolls as we do about throwing our 401(k) statements into a drawer, unread (and we especially don't have to feel as guilty as all those AIG executives). Comfort food is a mindless escape--just what America needs these days (never mind that pesky national problem of obesity. Let's take one thing at a time, here).

Every few months, I get a craving for some good, baked macaroni and cheese: simultaneously creamy and crusty, rich and soothing, filling, satisfying--the definition of comfort food. I have a pattern. The craving comes on slowly, sparked by a picture or a brief conversation until it grows over a few weeks while I plot my plan of action. What kind of mac and cheese should I make this time? The question flickers in the deep recesses of my mind until it gives way to others: Should it be basic, with plenty of breadcrumbs? Spicy? Sharp cheese or mild? One cheese? Two cheese? (red cheese, blue cheese?) Four-cheese? Low fat or fully indulgent?

You see, I have to plot strategically because I haven't yet settled on "my" mac and cheese recipe, and I only make it once every few months because I usually swear off all carbs for at least a few weeks afterward. Let's face it. Eating macaroni and cheese on a regular basis is deadly for the waistline. That's why I try to keep this kind of comfort food to a minimum. Sometimes, though, when everything is crashing down around you, macaroni and cheese is one thing that you know you can count on.

Here are two macaroni and cheese recipes that have passed my test. The first one is fully indulgent (you'll see what I mean when you read the ingredients). It is creamy and thick, bursting with cheesy flavor--the ultimate comfort food and definitely a stand-alone dish that can feed a crowd. The second recipe produces a more sophisticated taste. It doesn't beg one to devour in quite the same way as the first, but it is just as delicious.

Forget-All-Your-Sorrows Baked Macaroni and Cheese

1/4 pound unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
3 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs
1/4 pound coarsely grated extra-sharp Cheddar (1 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Macaroni and Sauce
1/2 pound unsalted butter (1 stick)
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
5 cups milk
1 pound coarsely grated extra-sharp Cheddar (6 cups)
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 pound elbow macaroni

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter one large 9'' x 13'' baking dish or two 2-quart shallow baking dishes.

For the topping, melt 1/4 lb. butter in a pan. Add breadcrumbs, 1 1/2 cups Cheddar and 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano. Stir until well combined. Remove from heat and set aside.

Cook macaroni in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve 1 cup cooking water and drain macaroni in a colander

Meanwhile, melt 1/2 lb. butter in heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat and stir in flour. Cook roux, stirring constantly, 3 minutes. Whisk in milk. Bring sauce to a boil, whisking constantly, then simmer, stirring occasionally for 3 minutes. Add the rest of both cheeses, salt and pepper and stir until smooth. Remove from heat and cover surface of sauce with wax paper.

Stir together macaroni, reserved cooking water and sauce in a large bowl. Transfer to buttered baking dish or dishes. Sprinkle topping evenly over macaroni and bake until golden and bubbling, 20 to 25 minutes.

Serves 8

For the Grown-Ups Mac and Cheese

1/2 cup dry breadcrumbs
6 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons sherry
1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 onion, minced
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
2 1/4 cups grated sharp Cheddar (9 ounces)
2 cups (8 ounces) elbow macaroni

Preheat oven to 350 F and butter a deep 1 1/2-quart baking dish.

Season bread crumbs with 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a pan on medium-low heat. Add breadcrumbs and cook, stirring occasionally, until butter is absorbed and crumbs are golden-brown. Remove from heat and set aside

In a medium saucepan, over medium-low heat, melt 4 tablespoons butter. Whisk all-purpose flour into butter until well blended and smooth, about 1 1/2 minutes. Meanwhile, add milk and the bay leaf to a small saucepan. Scald milk until bubbles form around the edges. Remove roux (butter and flour) from heat and slowly whisk in scalded milk and bay leaf until smooth again. Return to heat and bring to a simmer, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. Continue whisking 1 to 2 minutes until sauce is smooth and has thickened. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove bay leaf from sauce and add lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, sherry, paprika, onion and parsley. Stir until well blended. Then, simmer gently for 15 minutes. Remove sauce from heat and stir in two-thirds of the cheese. Reserve the rest.

Meanwhile, cook macaroni in a large pot of boiling salted water until just tender. Drain and remove to a large bowl. Stir in cheese sauce. Pour half of macaroni mixture into the baking dish. Sprinkle with half of the reserved cheese. Pour the rest of the macaroni into the dish and top with remaining cheese and breadcrumbs. Bake until breadcrumbs are lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.

Serves 6 to 8

1 comment:

Carol said...

ummmmm YUM!!! Glad they have passed the Gillian test!