Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Perfecting Macaroni and Cheese - A Work in Progress Recipe

So if you read my words here you may have come to the conclusion that I'm a practiced cook. That I'll gladly espouse. Yet, when it comes to Macaroni and Cheese, I still open a box of Kraft.

While shopping for pasta 2 weeks ago, I came across very small macaroni. Total length, if you stretched it straight would be slightly less than 1/2 an inch. And curved it's about 3/8 of an inch and not more than 1/8 inch wide, with the hole in the center. Zara brand. I have Zara's shape #71. That's important as it's size is quite small and the cooking time on the package is 2 to 3 minutes, of which, more later.

I next read up on the 'net about Mac and Cheese and came away from that in a quandary. At least six cheeses were mentioned and some even used Velveeta. That's not cheese, it's processed food spread or some such designation, but, at most, it's not cheese. It's only benefit is quickness of melting. The various cheeses listed as ingredients are: 

Cheddar - Yellow or White
Monterrey Jack

Next, recipes called for dry mustard, which I'm fine with and always use in Welsh Rabbit. Some called for toasted bread crumbs, some Panko breadcrumbs. While others insisted that Ritz Crackers give a buttery flavor. I can almost feel that in my mouth and will try it next time, with different cheeses than I used this time. One lady even said she liked a little Worcestershire Sauce. I also understand that as I too like a little vinegar to balance the unctuousness of the cheese flavors.

Next I noticed that many recipes called for condensed milk. Upon further examination of this I learned that those styles of recipes are evading making a simple Béchamel Sauce. This is the first sauce I ever learned to make and is the simplest of all sauces. So, in my ever evolving quest for authenticity, I opt for making the cheese sauce for this dish. That is nothing more than the Béchamel Sauce with grated cheese added.

To make this Macaroni and Cheese something special I decided I would use up the last teaspoon of white truffle oil. I also decided on a mix of Cheddar and Gruyère.

Off to the the supermarket I went. But I couldn't find both cheddar and Gruyère at the market I was at. On my way home I stopped at a Trader Joe's. I'm not a fan of TJ's but it was the next nearest market. Much to my delight, I found they had, what they called, a Melange of Cheddar and Gruyère. And all the more to my delight was their Italian Truffle Cheese. So, while I usually don't plug a particular place to shop, I'm making an exception in this instance.

A Word About Timing

Every process in making this recipe must be ready either before you make the sauce, or just after.

As the pasta cooks for a very short time and as the cheese sauce takes a few minutes longer; I recommend having the pot for the pasta boiling before you start the sauce. The cheese must be grated near the time of adding or it will get too soft and be harder to incorporate in the Béchamel. 


Box grater
9 x 13 casserole (mine is glass) I want a copper one.


16 ozs. elbow macaroni
12 ozs. Cheddar and Gruyère
6 ozs. Truffle cheese
6 tbs. butter, at room temperature
3 slices of sourdough bread - any bread will work - au gratin
3 3/4 cups of milk, heated in the microwave
1/4 cup of flour
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. salt
1/2 scant teaspoon black pepper
1 tsp. Truffle oil
Parmesan as garnish
2 tsp. parsley, chopped

Prep Work - This must be done before the actual cooking.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. for 15 minutes.
Bring the water for the pasta to a boil.
Remove the crust from the bread. Cut the bread into 3/8" cubes. Reserve.
Grate the cheeses. Reserve.
Have the milk measured and ready to microwave. I put mine in a Pyrex measuring cup and that worked perfectly.
If you are grating the nutmeg, have it ready. I mixed mine into the salt and pepper.
Butter the casserole with up to 1 tablespoon of butter.

Down to the Cooking

Heat the milk in the microwave for 3:30 (three and one-half) minutes. It should be quite warm, between 140 and 160 degrees F. Or 120 degrees F. at a minimum.
In a minimum of a 2 quart sauce pan, heat 2 tablespoons of butter until it is all melted. Add half a teaspoon of Truffle oil. You don't have to wait for the water to burn off (the sizzling sound). Add in the bread cubes and toss to evenly absorb the butter and oil. When the pan's bottom appears dry, remove the cubes and reserve, uncovered. They will be crisped while in the oven.

Heat the milk another 30 seconds to keep it warm, after making the flavored bread cubes.

Is the water for the pasta boiling? If yes, cook the pasta for 2 1/2 minutes to 3 minutes. When it is al dente drain in a colander under cold running water. Put the drained macaroni in the buttered casserole. Set aside.

In the saucepan that was used for the bread cubes, heat 4 tablespoons of butter until melted. Whence add 4 tablespoons of flour and over low heat, whisk continuously until the mixture colors to a tan or light brown. Put your finger in the milk. If it's cooled off too much, re-heat in the microwave for 30 seconds. If you have to heat the milk more, lower the heat on the roux. Continue to whisk the roux and slowly add 2 to 3 tablespoons of heated milk. When as you add the milk, the flour-butter mixture will seize. You will have something in the pot that resemble wet clay or mud in viscosity or texture. NOTHING is wrong. Continue whisking and add another 2, 3, or 4 tablespoons of milk at a time, constantly whisking to get the right absorption of the roux and milk. Your eyes will guide you about the amount to add. Go slowly. When about half the milk is added and you can see your sauce is developing, raise the heat slightly, and add the remaining milk. Do not stop whisking. Do not leave the stove to attend to another chore or project. When the sauce comes to a boil along the edges of the pan, remove from the heat and add the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add the remaining 1/2 tsp. of Truffle oil. Next, add 1/2 of the grated cheeses, a little at a time. Whisk constantly during all the ingredient additions. The heat of the sauce will allow all the cheeses to melt, but keep whisking. When the cheese is melted, pour it over the pasta. I suggest holding the pan's handle upright or vertically. Pour it gently and use a spatula to get that which will not pour out.

Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top of the pasta and sauce. Next add the flavored bread cubes made earlier. If you like you can now add a bit more Truffle oil on top of the casserole.

Put the dish in the oven for 30 minutes. Remove and allow to cool for 5 minutes. Serve with Parmesan Cheese and chopped parsley.

Cook's History Note:

Louis P. De Gouy writing in his The Gold Cook Book has at recipe #1549 the following:
   According to the legend Gio Cico was chef in an Italian prince's palace and was always in search for novelities for the prince's table.   One day he presented a dish made from a paste brought by Marco Polo from far way China. His Majesty enjoyed it so much that he even exlaimed "Cari!" (meaning "dear"). He took a second helping, then enthusiastically he exclaimed "ma Caroni." ("O but how very dear.")
And so what made the prince exclaim "ma Caroni" became macaroni for all the world.