Tuesday, February 28, 2012

You Had Me at Cheese

I’m not sure when macaroni and cheese moved up the epicurean ladder and started showing up on menus at a rather inflated price. And we followed, like eager lambs to the slaughter. Of course, like most things, we may have…over done it. Now that simple dish has morphed into a blank canvas piled with shaved truffles, pork belly, and crab. For me, it’s a situation of, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This is not to say that I haven’t gone to the Mac N Cheese dark side….and enjoyed.

But the bastardizing of this dish characterizes how far food has moved from sustenance and simplicity to grandstanding and swagger. As much as I enjoy and appreciate creativity, I am starting to feel as if I am being manipulated; I am expecting to be wowed. But why? Has my palate changed? Has the culinary landscape changed? Has food itself changed? No. The industry changed and our access to it. Now every piece on my plate, every ingredient in my dish is listed on the menu, quite often with its origin attached; right down to the salt.

When I really started to think about this, I started to panic. If I stepped too far in, would I be appreciative of simple things? Could I be happy with a salad simply dressed with a fruity olive oil? Would my happiness hinge on knowing what greens I was eating, where they came from, how they were farmed and how my olive oil was pressed? There is such a thing as too much knowledge.

And to be honest, I felt like an asshole. Why an asshole you ask? As much fun as it is to immerse one’s self in a subject; with a full grasp of terms, technique and history, there is a balance to maintain. It’s very easy to become a pretentious food snob (asshole if you will). And usually, a pretentious food snob/asshole can be one of the most insufferable people to be around. Forget about impressing them…you’ll be lucky if they have anything other than a critique  to throw your way. They have lost their ability to appreciate what simply…is.

I want to hold on to the reason I fell in love with food and cooking and why I ultimately went to culinary school; food and cooking bond people together. Meals are what celebrations and holidays are centered around. When we love families and friends, it is reflected in our cooking.

Yes, it is fun to geek out by accessing rare ingredients, getting creative and thinking outside the box…but it’s a slippery slope. In my house, it’s macaroni and cheese. No truffles, pork belly or crab. And I appreciate every bite.

For crumb crust
  • ¼ stick of butter
  • 1 cup of Panko (coarse Japanese bread crumbs) or 1 ½ cups coarse fresh bread crumbs (from 3 slices firm white sandwich bread)
  • ¾ cup coarsely grated extra-sharp Cheddar
  • ¼ cup fresh grated Parmesan

For macaroni and sauce
  • ½ stick unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 ½ cups whole milk
  • ½ pound coarsely grated extra-sharp Cheddar (3 cups)
  • ¼ cup fresh grated Parmesan¾ pound elbow macaroni

Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle. Melt butter, then stir together with panko and topping cheeses in a bowl until combined well.


Melt butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat and stir in flour. Cook roux, stirring, 3 minutes, then whisk in milk. Bring sauce to a boil, whisking constantly, then simmer, whisking occasionally, 3 minutes. Stir in cheeses, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper until smooth. Remove from heat and cover surface of sauce with wax paper.


Cook macaroni in a pasta pot of boiling salted water (2 tablespoons salt for 4 quarts water) until al dente. Reserve ½ cup cooking water and drain macaroni in a colander. Stir together macaroni, reserved cooking water, and sauce in a large bowl. Transfer to a butter 9 x 13 glass dish.

Sprinkle topping evenly over macaroni and bake until golden and bubbling, 20 to 25 minutes.


1 comment:

Garrett said...

Excellent work. ;)