Dear Lesli and Phil;
First let me tell you about teaching my first class at Williams-Sonoma last night. This was my first demo only class versus interactive cooking. Everything went great. I had bought everything I needed and packed it in a suitcase on wheels to 'drive' it into the mall, I had my knife roll with my favourite knives and a mini cooler with a pre marinated skirt steak and a flank steak for a swap out demo. Everything went great. We had a sold out crowd of 21 and I made it through without running out of things to say. Everyone came by in the end and said thank you or asked questions. The best was meeting Sharon who had read through A Year in Gastronomy, she also quit her hi-tech job and enrolled at CSCA in September. How cool is that!
I'm one of those converts now who chants out that people should follow their dreams. Getting up in the morning and really wanting to go to work or being excited about your job is just one of the best feelings. A worse case scenario day of teaching cooking classes is still INFINITELY better than any really great day in my old job. Hands down.
Now on to the reason for this note. Phil I know you asked for a recipe back on Memorial weekend and Lesli, I got your voice mail last night seeking the same recipe. Don't worry, you are not hurting my culinary feelings by requesting a recipe for Mac & Cheese. I'm a girl with an entire drawer in her fridge that is devoted to cheese. I can't walk into a store without scoping out the cheese counter seeking old favourites or better still, discovering some new yummy cheese that I hadn't previously known about. I'm really pleased that Donald has decided that those boxed Mac & Cheese, even with, as you said, 'real cheese' probably aren't really all that good for you.
Allow me to confess now;
*looks left*..*looks right*...said in a stage whisper...
'Even I break out the odd box of Annie's M&C occasionally, in fact ...*lowers voice* ...I've even eaten the frozen Stouffer's' *GASP*! Of course I doctor it up. Annie's gets made with Fage greek yoghurt and Stouffer's gets sauteed onions and chorizo added, but still - it's all just glorified premade, sodium filled, dehydrated cheese or Velveeta (ain't nothing wrong with Velveeta) based, preservative filled convenience.
Having now made that horrible confession I will now dispense with the Mac & Cheese recipe that I turn to when I really want the good stuff. Mac & cheese really isn't hard to make at all, it just takes a little time.
First, you should have a nice shallow wide pan to cook it in so it gets a really wide area of the crusty topping bits. My personal fave is the good old 9 X 11 pyrex. It never fails me.
Second, choose the cheeses that you love. Most times I fall on cheddar as a base, but I don't make it all cheddar because too much cheddar can make things oily and a bit stringy. I have also used Colby for a touch of that 'authentic' yellow colour. I've added blue cheese and creamy gorgonzola when the mood has struck. Boursin is a nice creamy and flavourful addition. Gruyere and/or Comte makes things all nice and stringy causing those delicious strands from plate to fork to mouth. Occasionally scraps of Gloucestershire or Cheshire might make their way in. bascially folks this is a cheese lovers free for all.
Third, the pasta. Pick a shape that holds a good amount of cheesie goodness without offering too much in the way of pasta chewing. Think elbows not bow ties. Maybe ditalini if you want something little or penne if you want something big. Stay away from those radiatore though, it makes your M&C more like jaw exercise than dining enjoyment.
Now basically in professional terms you are making a gratin based on a mother sauce of a roux with milk added which is a bechemel to which cheese is added making it a Mornay sauce (a small sauce of the bechemel) and topping it off with a gratin topping.
In layman's terms it means dumping a few things in a pan in a certain order and cooking some pasta.
pretty damn easy.
Now gather what you need first, this is called mise en place. Go ahead, just tell your other half that your going to mise en place now and see what kind of look you get.
You will need
1 stick of butter (plus a little extra for the dish)
5 or 6 slices of white bread, crusts removed like a good kid should and tear it up into 1/2 inch pieces or smaller if you like. Don't measure it! Just tear it up.
5 1/2 cups milk - This would be a good time to use whole milk or at the least 2% milk. You want it to taste good right?
1/2 cup of flour
some salt - yea I said some salt. You will need to salt your water for cooking the pasta. You will want some salt for seasoning, how much salt you want depends on the cheese you use and how salty you like your food. I'm not going to dictate anybodys salt content.
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg. Throw that damn spice box of grated nutmeg away, buy some whole nutmeg. It keeps longer and tastes better. Just grate it using a box grater on the fine edge or use a microplane (one of the world's greatest inventions). Nutmeg is always added to cream sauces. Not because you want the sauce to taste like nutmeg, but because it enhances the flavour of the sauce.
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper - again, none of that tinned already ground stuff please.
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard. Coleman's is quite nice.
6 - 7 cups of cheese keeping cheddar at about 2/3 to half the quantity of the cheese total. If you are buying by weight and don't wish to grate all your cheese and then measure it in a little cup that would be about 25 - 28 ounces of cheese total.
1 pound of pasta
Now this makes a good family size batch of M&C enough for a whopping 3 quart casserole dish. Cut it in half if you want. No worries. Heck, quarter it if you want.
Get the oven warming to 375.
Set large pot of water on the stove and start it now for cooking the pasta.
Butter your dish.
Put your torn up bread in a bowl and pour 2 tablespoons of melted butter over it. Stir it up.
Get a saucepan big enough to hold the milk, run water into the pan and pour it out (this helps to stop the milk from crusting on the bottom of the pan) and add the milk and warm it up. Not boiling, not simmering, just take the chill off it.
In another pan that is big enough to hold all the milk, plus the cheese, put in the remaining 6 tablespoons of butter. When the butter has melted add the flour and cook stirring 1 minute with a whisk. Now you're making a roux.
Keep whisking, add the warmed milk in two or three additions, keep stirring. Cook and keep whisking until it gets thick an bubbles.
Take the pan off the heat, add salt and nutmeg along with the ground pepper. Now add about 4 cups of the cheese and stir it in.
By now your pasta water should be boiling. Salt it. Well. this is not the time for a pinch of salt.
Pour in the pasta, stir, cover, bring back to the boil. Take the cover off and cook until the outside of the pasta is cooked. The center will still be raw. Remember it is going back in the oven for at least half an hour. Following the pasta box instructions, stop about 5 minutes before they say you should. Drain it and run cold water over it and drain. This will slow the cooking down a bit.
Taste your sauce and be sure you like it. Add more salt or pepper if you wish. Heck, be brave and throw in some hot sauce or Worcestershire sauce. I usually do.
Now add the pasta to the cheese sauce, stir well and dump it all in that gratin dish (the pyrex Lesli, the Pyrex). Sprinkle the remainder of the cheesie goodness on top. Sprinkle those buttery bread crumbs on and bung the whole thing into the oven.
Cook this for about 30 minutes or until it bubbles on the edges and looks nice and appealing through the little oven window.
Take it out and let it cool for a few minutes so you don't scorch the inside of your mouth and end up with that nasty piece of skin that.....oh never mind.
Enjoy your M&C.