by Malia Kirby L.Ac.
Gen-X, for whatever reason, has been diligently working on making the comfort foods of our childhood for the adult populace. Thomas Keller re-engineered the flavors of Dinty Moore stew into something palatable, David Chang & Friends have been serving cereal milk flavored desserts and a McDonald’s-style apple pie, and everyone and their dog owning a restaurant with pasta on the menu is now serving macaroni and cheese. Sometimes, it’s a multi-cheese mac using artisan cheeses covering many different flavor profiles. Sometimes, it’s lemon-scented with ricotta, garlic oil, toasted walnuts, and fresh herbs. Or, as with one of our noodle joints here in the metro area, sometimes it includes fresh, handmade pasta cooked in lobster stock, tossed in a light gruyere sauce with asparagus, pea shoots, lobster meat and roe, and a light drizzling of truffle oil. Mac and cheese—fortunately for us all—finally decided to grow up out of the box and leave that shockingly orange powder devoid of any nutrients whatsoever behind.
Here’s the thing about making any kind of cheese sauce—most cheese doesn’t melt nicely into a sauce all on its lonesome. As one of my favorite childhood instructors was wont to comment regarding paint media, you need a vehicle. This is all-too-often the case with cheese. Some separate into oil and solids. Others are stringy (I’m looking at you, mozzarella) while others scald and conglomerate into a plastic-like mass on the bottom of your saucepan. With cheese sauces, your vehicle is the French mother sauce, béchamel, which you are adding cheese in order to transform it into mornay sauce. Fear not, it’s a no-brainer.
Macaroni & Cheese Base Recipe
8 T butter
1 onion, diced
Pinch kosher salt
¼ c all-purpose flour
6 c milk
1 c heavy cream
1 bay leaf
8 whole black peppercorns
3 whole cloves
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
4 c grated cheese mix of your choice (we like half & half between comté & gruyere)
1 lb dried macaroni elbow pasta
1-2 c panko bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 375°F and oil a 9x13” baking dish.
Melt the butter over medium heat, then sweat the diced onion with the pinch of kosher salt until translucent, approximately 3-5 minutes. Whisk in the flour to create a roux and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring continuously.
Slowly add in the milk and the cream into the roux, whisking continuously to create a smoothly textured béchamel. Add the bay leaf, peppercorns, cloves, and the nutmeg. Reduce heat to low and simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally (If your range top on its lowest setting still manages to scorch the béchamel, consider making a diffuser by making a ring of aluminum foil, placing it directly on the burner, and placing your saucepan on top of the aluminum ring).
While the béchamel is simmering, heat 6-8 c water in a large saucepan to boiling and cook the macaroni for 3 minutes. Drain, then immediately rinse with cold water to arrest cooking.
Remove the béchamel from heat, strain out the bay, peppercorns, cloves, and onion pieces from the béchamel, then whisk in the grated cheese mixture until melted, creating a mornay sauce.
Toss the mornay sauce with the partially cooked macaroni elbows until fully coated, then transfer to the prepared 9x13” baking dish. Sprinkle with panko, then bake at 375°F for 30 minutes or until bubbly and the panko is golden brown. Serve hot alongside a green salad dressed with the juice from 1 lemon or freshly made vinaigrette.
- Asparagus, prosciutto, & fresh pea shoot: cut 1 bunch asparagus spears into 2-3” pieces and blanch for 2-3 minutes. Add the asparagus, 1-2 t minced fresh thyme, & ½ c prosciutto when combining the mornay and pasta together. Garnish with fresh pea shoots at serving time.
- Lobster & Truffle: top individual servings with the meat from 1 lobster, drizzle with black truffle oil, and garnish with shavings of black truffles (if desired) and 2 T of minced parsley. Serve with quartered lemons.
- Four Cheese: Use 1 c comté, 1 c grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, 1 c fontina, & 1 c gruyere
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