Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

More craft, less Kraft: it's a snap to master homemade versions of your favourite cheesy comfort food

Forget the orange packaged powder

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Mac and cheese is all about technique. And you thought it was about the cheese.

There is more to achieving the best texture and flavour, says Ellen Brown, author of Mac & Cheese: 80 Classic & Creative Versions of the Ultimate Comfort Food (Running Press, $23).

"The difference between a good mac and cheese and a great mac and cheese is technique," says Brown, cookbook author, food columnist and former USA Today food editor. And the key elements of that technique are cooking the pasta to the proper doneness and stirring up a smooth sauce.

"If mac and cheese is oven-baked, you have to undercook the pasta and it has to look really soupy when it goes in the oven," Brown says. "You want that soupiness so after 20 minutes or a half hour you'll have exactly the right consistency."

With those elements conquered, the third is an ingredient, not method, and is, of course, that cheese. You want to use flavourful cheese, certainly, but you also want a combination of two or more for complexity.

Whether stove-top or baked (better, thank you), classic or with add-ins of various vegetables (greens, broccoli, artichokes) or proteins (lobster, chicken, bacon), a mac and cheese's greatness is built upon this foundation. Brown -- along with Laura Werlin's Mac & Cheese, Please! -- breaks it down below.

 

The pasta

YOU must undercook the pasta before baking the casserole because the pasta cooks more in the oven. Start with a dried pasta high in durum semolina, choosing short shapes (less than 5 cm or 2 inches). Brown and Werlin list more than a dozen, but start with penne, gemelli, elbows or orecchiette. Skip expensive artisan imported varieties, Brown advises; spend the money on the cheese instead. Then cook that pasta in plenty of well-salted boiling water until it begins to soften but is not yet al dente -- about 1 minute short of the low end of the maker's suggested cooking time. Taste to check doneness.

 

The cheese

GO for quality. Go for complexity. Get the latter by using a combination of cheeses. "Your dominant player is a cheese you would sit down and eat by itself: all forms of cheddar, Gruyère and Gouda," Brown says. "Cheeses that are not overwhelming." The supporting player will have stronger flavor, like a blue cheese or Parmesan. You'll use less of this. "It's amazing what a little bit will do," says Brown. Buy from a cheese shop or grocer with a good cheese counter. (Again, both authors offer dozens of ideas.) Barring that, choose supermarket cheeses like cheddar, Monterey Jack and jalape±o jack, Brown says. And skip the pre-shredded. "Cheese begins to lose flavour the second it's grated," she warns.

 

The sauce

THE key to a velvety-smooth cheese sauce that coats the pasta and other ingredients uniformly is a simple roux. That mixture forms the base for a béchamel, a simple-to-make sauce. Yet Brown has found in her years of food journalism that few people know how to make it. Here's how: Cook butter (or other fat) and flour together over low heat so the flour loses its uncooked taste; slowly whisk in the milk (warm it first, she says) over medium heat to avoid lumps; cook gently until the sauce begins to thicken; add the cheese gradually, otherwise the sauce will cool and the cheese may form a giant lump that won't melt easily.

 

Mediterranean mac and cheese with olives

8 cloves garlic, unpeeled
5 to 10 ml (1 to 2 tsp) olive oil
170 g (6 oz) baby spinach
250 g (1/2 pound) penne
30 ml (2 tbsp) unsalted butter
30 ml (2 tbsp) flour
375 ml (1 1/2 cups) whole milk, warmed
10 ml (2 tsp) fresh thyme
5 ml (1 tsp) grated lemon zest
170 g (6 oz) goat cheese, crumbled
55 g (2 oz) Muenster, grated
2 ml (1/2 tsp) salt
Freshly ground pepper
60 ml (1/4 cup) pitted kalamata olives, diced
85 g (3 oz) provolone, grated
60 ml (1/4 cup) plain breadcrumbs

 

Heat the oven to 200 C (375 F). Toss garlic with oil; wrap in foil. Bake until cloves are soft, 15-20 minutes. Allow to cool. Pop cloves from skins; mash into a paste.

Meanwhile, heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in the spinach; cook just until wilted, 30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon; drain. When cool, squeeze out liquid. Add pasta to boiling water; cook until just beginning to soften; it should not yet be al dente. Drain; rinse the pasta. Return it to the pot.

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat; stir in flour. Cook, stirring, until mixture turns slightly beige, is bubbly and appears to have grown in volume, 1 minute. Increase heat to medium; slowly whisk in the milk. Heat until just beginning to bubble, whisking frequently. Reduce heat to low; stir in thyme and lemon zest. Simmer, 2 minutes.

Add goat and Muenster cheeses by 1/2-cup measures, stirring until cheese melts before adding more. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir garlic, spinach and olives into pasta. Pour sauce over pasta; stir to coat. Transfer to a buttered 33-by-23-cm (13-by-9-inch) baking pan. Combine provolone and breadcrumbs; sprinkle over dish.

Bake until cheese sauce is bubbly and topping browns, 20-30 minutes. Allow to rest 5 minutes before serving.

Nutrition information per serving (for 6 servings): 490 calories, 27 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 56 mg cholesterol, 42 g carbohydrates, 21 g protein, 666 mg sodium, 4 g fibre

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 40 minutes

Makes: 4 to 6 servings

Adapted from Mac & Cheese,by Ellen Brown, who adapted the recipe from S MAC (Sarita's Macaroni & Cheese) in New York.

 

Buffalo chicken mac and cheese

250 g (1/2 pound) cavatappi
30 ml (2 tbsp) unsalted butter
30 ml (2 tbsp) flour
440 ml (1 3/4 cups) whole milk
60 ml (1/4 cup) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
125 ml (1/2 cup) firmly packed grated Monterey Jack
125 ml (1/2 cup) crumbled Gorgonzola
2 ml (1/2 tsp) salt
Freshly ground pepper
30 ml (2 tbsp) unsalted butter
15 to 30 ml (1 to 2 tbsp) hot sauce
10 ml (2 tsp) cider vinegar
1 large grilled or broiled boneless, skinless chicken breast half, diced
30 ml (2 tbsp) snipped fresh chives
125 ml (1/2 cup) breadcrumbs

 

Heat the oven to 200 C (375 F). Heat a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Cook the pasta until just short of al dente. Drain; rinse under cold water. Return pasta to pot.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat; stir in flour. Cook, stirring, until mixture turns slightly beige, is bubbly and appears to have grown in volume, 1 minute. Increase heat to medium; slowly whisk in the milk. Heat until just beginning to bubble, whisking frequently. Reduce heat to low. Whisk in the Parmesan and Monterey Jack; stir until melted. Whisk in the Gorgonzola. Simmer, 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat the butter, hot sauce and vinegar in a small skillet; add the chicken. Stir to coat evenly with the sauce. Season to taste.

Add the cheese sauce to the pasta; stir well. Fold in the chicken and chives. Pour into a buttered 33-by-23-cm (13-by-9-inch) baking dish or 2-quart casserole; sprinkle with the breadcrumbs. Bake, 20-30 minutes.

Nutrition information per serving (for 6 servings): 420 calories, 19 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 61 mg cholesterol, 41 g carbohydrates, 20 g protein, 605 mg sodium, 2 g fibre.

Note: To change any stove-top mac and cheese to oven-baked, follow Ellen Brown's method: Cook the pasta until not quite al dente, increase the liquid by 25 per cent but keep the cheese amount the same. For baked into stove-top: Cut the liquid back by one-quarter; cook the pasta until al dente.

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 40 minutes

Makes: 4 to 6 servings

This recipe from Mac & Cheese, by Ellen Brown, is adapted from Rockit Bar and Grill.

-- Chicago Tribune

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 13, 2013 C1

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