Sunday, May 3, 2009

Dim Sum Sunday - Creamy macaroni and cheese

A little while back I was invited to join the Karmic Kitchen's Dim Sum Sunday food blog event:

"Is your Sunday dinner delectable? Daring? Succulent? Shareable? If it's any or all of those things, or even something completely different, we'd like to invite you to participate in "Dim Sum Sunday" - a weekly food meme. Each week, a theme will be given. The participants will use the theme (from the literal to the avant-garde) when creating their Sunday suppers the following week. Then, just take a picture or two of the meal, and tell us all about it. Does it have to be home cooking? Not necessarily - you can go out, eat in, or even go to a friends long as your post reflects the theme in original (you don't have to be a professional photographer) pictures of your dinner, and personal stories (and recipes and how-tos if you choose...)!"

I declined at the time as I was working the Sunday late shift on the reference desk and wasn't having a Sunday dinner. I still am, but I've belated realized that the Sunday dinner doesn't have to be literal; I just need to post it up on Sunday. This dish was actually my Friday dinner. The theme this week: comfort food.

Mentioning the reference desk there is actually relevant as I've decided to misuse my librarianly abilities for personal gain. I have access to databases filled with over a century of newspaper backfiles and while, yes, man walks on moon, man also cooks mac and cheese and writes articles about the recipe.

Actually, it's woman, not man, in this case and the article is just from 2006 so it's probably on-line somewhere. But it's from an article with some interesting things to say about the philosophy of mac and cheese with some recipes that are proper macaroni and cheese not macaroni in a cheese-flavored white sauce. This is an exceptionally interesting one that uses ingredients and techniques I haven't seen before:

Creamy Macaroni and Cheese
Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

2 tablespoons butter
1 cup cottage cheese (not lowfat)
2 cups milk (not skim)
1 teaspoon dry mustard
Pinch cayenne
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated [I used half sharp cheddar and half colby]
1/2 pound elbow pasta, uncooked.

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees and position an oven rack in upper third of oven. Use 1 tablespoon butter to butter a 9-inch round or square baking pan.

2. In a blender, purée cottage cheese, milk, mustard, cayenne, nutmeg and salt and pepper together. Reserve 1/4 cup grated cheese for topping. In a large bowl, combine remaining grated cheese, milk mixture and uncooked pasta. Pour into prepared pan, cover tightly with foil and bake 30 minutes.

3. Uncover pan, stir gently,

[and stir in anything that you want mixed into the dish. I wanted to keep things simple so I sautéed some onion, pepper and good quality, but neutrally-flavored ham (for something like this you want the ham to taste like ham, not smoke or maple syrup) in a little butter and a whole lot of truffle oil. The little black specks you can see in the pan are bits of truffle. I've heard of truffled mac and cheese plenty of times, but I've never tried it and now seemed as good a time as ever.]

sprinkle with reserved cheese and dot with remaining tablespoon butter. Bake, uncovered, 30 minutes more, until browned. Let cool at least 15 minutes before serving. Serve with a green salad and white wine.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings."

And here it is:

It looks pretty darn good, but that's definitely not what I'd call creamy. The cheese is clotted up pretty solid, really. I went back to the article to see if there was a description of the completed dish to compare with my results:
"One of the most surprising recipes I tried called for uncooked pasta. Full of doubt, I mixed raw elbow noodles with a sludge of cottage cheese, milk and grated cheese. The result was stunning: the noodles obediently absorbed the liquid as they cooked, encasing themselves in fluffy cheese and a crust of deep rich brown."
and on the origin of the dish:
"Daphne Mahoney, the Jamaican-born owner of Daphne's Caribbean Express in Manhattan's East Village, makes a wonderfully dense version of macaroni and cheese that combines American cheese with extra-sharp cheddar. Macaroni pie is hugely popular in the Caribbean, especially on islands like Jamaica and Barbados that once received regular stocks of cheddar from other members of the British commonwealth: Canada, Australia and New Zealand."
and more generally:
"'Starting at about the turn of the 20th century, there was a huge fashion for white sauce in America -- chafing-dish stuff like chicken à la king, or creamed onions,' [cookbook author John Thorne] said last week. 'They were cheap and seemed elegant, and their legacy is that people choose 'creamy' over everything else. But I maintain that macaroni and cheese should be primarily cheesy.'"

"Creamy" as a negative. "Macaroni pie". "Encasing themselves in fluffy cheese". I think this recipe turned out exactly as it was supposed to; it was just mislabeled. And once past that cognitive dissonance I could enjoy the dish for what it was. Putting the macaroni in uncooked resulted in them coming out firm and chewy, but not al dente. And far from the limp and soft overcooked macaroni you often get when using pre-cooked pasta in a baked mac and cheese. The cheese is solid, but soft and light. Almost like a soufle, really. That's from the cottage cheese. Plenty of good cheese flavor, but deeper and richer than straight chedar and/or colby. And that's the truffles doing. The ham, onion and pepper are just fiddly bits adding a little interest.

I don't make mac and cheese very often so I don't have a standard recipe, but I can see coming back to this one to try variations.


LaDivaCucina said...

Very nice Bill! I like a chewy pasta over a mushy one so would try this recipe. One of the reasons I don't really like other people's mac n cheese is cuz its mooshy. And I can't stanz mooshy!

I did a layered turkey meat loaf and mash:

Big Shamu said...

Thanks so much for joining our Dim Sum Sunday and what a great entry. Cognitive dissonance indeed. I have to say I almost did mac and cheese for my comfort dish, it's certainly up there in my top ten and very few people find a pasta cheese casserole distasteful. I'm glad it's the dish you chose and that you gave us a little background on your choice.
Happy Dim Sum Sunday.

TROLL Y2K said...

Classic and a very good point on the ham's neutrality. I'm UP with a version of Hot Brown Sandwiches.

billjac said...

I think mac and cheese is a dish that usually gets by on nostalgia. There are so many bad mushy or dried out or flavorless versions out there that finding one that lives up to the memory, creamy or otherwise, is worth posting about.

kat said...

I've seen recipes that use cottage cheese in mac & cheese but have never tried it before sounds interesting. Truffled mac & cheese seems trendy at restaurants these days

billjac said...

It's trendy, but it's really good. Well worth a try. I do think the restaurants jack up the prices unconscionably, though, so make it at home.

Buzz Kill said...

I have never tried the truffle oil on mac and cheese but may give it a try if I think about it the next time I'm at Sur la Table or someplace like that. If you're a Top Chef fan you may remember that Dave from Season 1 made a mac and cheese with truffles that won an elimination challenge for him, so there must be something to it.

Enjoyed your post.

billjac said...

Geez, how long ago was Season 1 of Top Chef? Truffled mac and cheese is such a cliche these days. Don't get me wrong--they're really good and well worth trying--but they've filtered down to hotel restaurants at this point.

Thanks for stopping by, Buzz Kill.