Monday, November 14, 2011

Macaroni and Cheese Casserole- Old School Style

Few things say "comfort food" like the classic macaroni and cheese. I'm not talking about that weird, artificially colored stuff that comes out of those little cardboard boxes. I'm talking about old school style macaroni and cheese, baked in the oven in a casserole dish, with some nice crunchy stuff on top. This is my variation on the way my own mother used to make it- this version isn't really over-the-top gooey and cheesy as most- this version is more dry, and the real developed flavors come from that little bit of crunchy topping, and the bits around the edges that brown up and caramelize a bit. The same recipe can easily be adapted to produce something very creamy and cheesy, but there's something about  this proportion of cheese to macaroni that does it for me.

Any mac and cheese starts with a good cheese sauce. This is simply milk or cream with a healthy dose of butter as a base. Cheese is then melted into this base until your have a smooth, cheesy concoction that can easily coat a pasta. Even though I'm going for something more dry than usual, I still want my sauce to be as rich as possible, so I'm starting with a pint of heavy cream, and four tablespoons of butter (about 1/2 stick). Put this base over a low heat and let the butter melt into the cream slowly. While you wait for this to happen, it's probably a good time to start working on a big pot of boiling water for your pasta.

Lets talk about seasoning. When my mother made her mac and cheese, it really wasn't seasoned much- maybe some salt and pepper. The way I see it, this sauce is a perfect vehicle for bringing a few more complimentary flavors into the mix, without overshadowing the cheese itself. I think you need salt and black pepper for starters, and one or two herbs that complement cheese well- parsley and thyme should do the trick. The final seasoning is a bit of  a secret weapon- turmeric. The turmeric has a subtle flavor that's vaguely smoky and savory- and should blend with the cheese nicely. Turmeric is the spice that gives curry it's distinctive yellow coloring, here it will help stain the cheese, and give it a boost of color. I'll prepare about a tablespoon of each seasoning and set them aside until my cheese sauce comes together.

Next we come to the all-important cheese. You can make a great mac and cheese with just one type of cheese- if that's what you like. Here I want to go for a little more complexity, so I use a mixture of Cheddar, American, and Swiss. If you make sure your cheese is shredded, it will be much easier to melt, and you'll end up with a nice even sauce. Whatever blend of cheeses you decide to use, you'll need about four cups of it once it's shredded for the semi-dry version I'm interested in. You can always add more cheese, or even start with more cream if you prefer a more gooey, cheesy casserole.

Once your cream and butter mixture is all melted together, and is at a near-boil, start melting your shredded cheese in- enough to make a thick (probably about three cups of cheese will do it), but still liquid sauce, and put whatever cheese is left over aside for now. Even if you want to pack in a lot of cheese, just add enough to make the sauce stay runny so you can coat the pasta with it- we'll add the leftover cheese back in after that. As your cheese melts in, keep stirring to keep it smooth. Once the cheese is incorporated into the cream, add in our seasoning, and continue to stir.

As you stir the seasonings into the cheese, you'll see it transform to an extent. The bits of greenery from the parsley and thyme just look nice against the yellow cheese, but the turmeric's effect is the most pronounced. The yellow/orange color of the cheese will intensify and deepen. Once the turmeric is fully incorporated, the cheese will have an almost artificial look to it- just remember, even though it looks a little on the intense side now, the baking time in the oven will take some of the edge off. If you're worried about putting too much of this intense color in, add the turmeric a little a a time instead of all at once, and come to a stop when you're happy with the color.

By now, if you haven't already, you should get your macaroni pasta in the water. I only know how to make this dish in mass quantities, so I need 2 pounds of pasta here. Most elbow shaped macaroni will take about seven minutes to cook to al dente. Since we're going to combine it with a sauce and bake it, you can actually take the pasta out when it is still a little under-cooked. Drain your pasta well, and pour it into a large baking dish. Add your cheese sauce, and toss/mix until the pasta is coated, then add in any leftover cheese you had and toss until combined well. This is also the time to add in any goodies if you want to take this casserole to the next level- things like a few handfuls of diced ham, or some crumbled bacon, or even some fresh green peas. This mac and cheese, however, is pretty good as is, so I'm going to play it straight this time.

My favorite part of the old school  mac and cheese casserole is the topping- simple seasoned breadcrumb cooked until brown and crusty. This is an important textural component to contrast the creamier interior, and it's where a good deal of flavor can develop. Mom always used standard Italian style breadcrumb, so that's what I usually use too. Back then panko (Japanese Breadcrumbs) were not something you'd see in stores very often (or at all) in the US, but just based on the texture alone, panko would be a great substitute here. In addition to the breadcrumb, you'll need some melted butter to help crisp up the bread. You can either combine your breadcrumb with the melted butter in a separate bowl before topping the macaroni for a more consistent topping, or you can spread the crumb then drizzle it with melted butter for a little more variety in texture. Either way, get a fairly good coating of breadcrumb on top, enough to form a substantial crust on top in the oven.

The casserole should bake in a 350 degree oven until the top gets crusty. Depending on the size of your baking dish, this will probably take about 30-45 minutes. The crumbs should be toasted to a nice golden brown. It won't be completely solid- it should still crumble, but mostly stay adhered to the pasta and cheese under it. If you stuck with the same proportions I used, the pasta should have a nice baked on coating of cheese.

The bits of pasta sticking up should be slightly browned, providing a little extra chew, and that same kind of developed flavor you get when cheese lands on a hot grill and starts to toast. The bits around the edges tend to be more crusty and caramelized than the parts towards the middle, and you should have a some more browned bits on the bottom where the pasta was touching the pan. As I said- I wasn't going for an overly juicy or gooey mac and cheese (that style has it's place too!) - I'm looking for those browned bits with developed flavor, and a drier consistency. It's not exactly the traditional model for a mac and cheese, but it brings back strong memories for me.

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