I haven’t exactly tried to hide the fact that cooking, and especially learning how to replicate high-end cuisine has become a prominent part of my life over the last year or two. That said, I don’t try make every conversation with a stranger or an acquaintance about my most recent culinary experience. I think it’s a universal desire amongst people to not be pigeonholed, or as Tom Collichio is want to criticize cheftestants’ offerings, too “one note.”
More often than not, however, when someone does discover my interest in cooking and its extent, the first question out of their mouths is, without fail, “How did you start doing this stuff?” Depending on who is asking, I may or may not share with them the whole truth and nothing but. You see, the tale of my designation as the “main cook” at home, is not one I’m really proud of. I come out looking like a jerk, believe it or not, and I think I’m correct in assuming that another universal desire among healthy human beings is to not be perceived as such.
So, no, I’m not going to share that story with you tonight. I will tell you, however, that this post makes me a little nostalgic about that story, in the sense that it represents a diametrically opposed dish to the one involved in my untold story of jerkiness.
Mac and Cheese–I would be willing to bet that every American born-and-raised child has grown up with fond memories of this dish. Its comfort food that we’ve all eaten when nothing else comes to mind–or when no other ingredients can be found in the house besides for pasta, cheese, and some other last minute throw-ins.
I grew up on linguine-and-american-cheese-melted-in-skim-milk. It doesn’t take me very long to picture in my mind the battered, thin-walled, and scratched silver pot whose only consistent use was the making and storing this dish. We didn’t eat much dairy growing up. I only discovered the wonderous gift from G-d, butter, a few years ago, and have been in a loving relationship with it ever since. But I don’t look back. with scorn in my eyes, to our American cheese macaroni days. I could always count on Ima to make a batch whenever I was hungry, and didn’t want to eat anything already in the fridge. And I would find it waiting for me, and it was still hot.
As we grow older, and are weaned from the comfort of Mom’s cooking, we look to other foods to sate our hunger, and sometimes, for the purpose of feeding others. After a long day, coming home to nothing in the fridge and a family to feed, turns our minds to the comfort of our youth, in my case, Mac and Cheese.
Herein lies the problem. With all the foods that I’ve tasted, and all the techniques that I’ve learned from the likes of Ruhlman, Brown, Achatz, and Keller, I really can’t bring myself to keep American cheese in my own fridge, let alone to prepare and serve it as something of my own. Thus began my search for an improvement on my own childhood comfort food.
Currently, I employ two variations of Mac and Cheese in my repertoire. The first, easier method, is Alton Brown’s recreation and improvement on the standard, macaroni-with-cheese-packet boxes (WackyMac). It’s quick, easy, tasty, and the kiddies love it. The second method, which I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, is obviously a little more complicated, but well worth the extra effort. Ruhlman’s recipe is the one I used for Mac and Cheese with Soubise, and with it, he highlights one of the many uses of the often under-appreciated onion.
Here we go.
Half-a-stick of butter was melted (so much, because I doubled the recipe,)
and I let these onions sweat it out, with the help of a generous pinch of kosher salt. The salt helps draw all the moisture from the onion, which must happen before your onions can properly brown.
I wish my kitchen had better lighting.
Next, came the roux.
After briefly cooking some chopped shallots in the small pan of melted butter, I added flour, and cooked until it darkened in color, and began to smell “nutty.” Next, the milk–
and the spices–
that’s salt, pepper, smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, mustard powder and fresh nutmeg. The milk-roux mixture thickened for a bit, while the onions finished their browning.
When those two steps were complete, I mixed the milk mixture into the onions,
and added a whole mess of shredded cheddar. After the cheese melted, (I didn’t have Comte, as Ruhlman suggests, and I have doubts that a kosher version even exists…) I mixed it in with the macaroni.
Now, Ruhlman’s instructions are to blend the soubise before mixing with the cheese and macaroni. Sadly, my immersion blender broke not too long ago; apparently, making Caesar dressing was too much for it. Not wanting to make my full-size blender dairy by having it run through all this hot milk, I left the onions whole, and the soubise unblended.
I topped the mac and cheese with some fresh rye breadcrumbs (thanks, Shaloms, for the stale loaf,) and some more cheddar, and baked it in the oven until it looked like this–
What was your childhood comfort food?