McMan’s Ultimate Comfort Gourmet Baked Mac and Cheese

John McManamy Health Guide
  • You may have read about last week’s California cold snap that destroyed three-quarters of the state’s citrus crop.

    It wasn’t just the crops that suffered. Everywhere in the San Diego region where I recently moved, panic-stricken residents bundled up against fierce winter chills as daytime temperatures plunged to an unheard of 45 degrees. Layers of clothing became the order of the day - Hawaiian shirt over Polo shirt over at least two tee shirts over tank top. Street kids suddenly realized those knitted caps that go so well with their nose rings served a functional purpose.

    The New England Patriots who came into town to play the Chargers unexpectedly found themselves with the home field advantage. Pleasure craft remained in their moorings. Row upon row of forgotten surf boards, stuck upright in the sand, lined the beaches like bleak petrified forests. Disoriented commuters, with a thousand-mile stare in their eyes, ordered hot coffee to go instead of frozen frappucinnos.
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    It was enough to make a grown man cry. Now I know what the Siege of Leningrad must have been like. Even the funny weatherman on the local station was serious.

    Fortunately, being from the northeast, I knew exactly what to do. I had elbow macaroni in the pantry. I had cheese. I had milk. It was time to roll up my sleeves and get to work. It was time for winter comfort food.

    McMan’s Ultimate Comfort Gourmet Baked Mac and Cheese

    Repeat after me: Mac and cheese is not kids’ food. Forget that horrid stuff that comes in a blue box and think instead of Martha Stewart. Done right, we’re talking three Michelin stars.

    The secret to a gourmet mac and cheese is a creamy sauce. Let the sauce do the talking, and you can go easy on the cheese. It’s the ultimate food finesse – healthier AND better taste.

    First, start boiling a large sauce pan of water (with a bit of salt) and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

    Now melt about two tablespoons of light butter or margarine along with a splash or two of olive oil or canola oil in a large sauce pan. Slowly whisk in a quarter cup of flour until you have something that resembles library paste. The French call this a roux, and it is the basis of practically all of their sauces. You want to keep the roux going in the pan so it loses its floury taste. The longer you can keep it going (a minute or two), the darker and nuttier in taste it becomes.

    Slowly pour in 2 1/4 cups of hot skim or low fat milk and keep whisking, gradually incorporating the roux into the liquid. You don’t want to add the milk too fast or you’ll end up with a lumpy sauce. Once you’ve got about a cup of sauce of even consistency, it’s safe to dump in the rest of the milk.

    Bring up the temperature to a low boil and then reduce the heat. The sauce will start to thicken. What you have here is what the French call a béchamel sauce.

    By now your water in the other pan should be boiling. Stir into the pan eight oz. of elbow macaroni, and cook according to the instructions on the package, with a view to slightly undercooking, making sure no pieces are sticking together.

  • Now to the cheese part of the mac and cheese. The important thing to remember is that the cheese is merely the flavoring for the sauce. Easy does it. You will get a better flavor if you can mix in at least two different kinds of cheese, such as cheddar with Swiss. What I tend to do is begin shredding a block of cheddar or jack cheese until I have about a small handful, then I grab a small handful of pre-shredded soy cheese. Set the cheeses aside for now.
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    Back to the sauce. Right now we have something creamy but bland. A little bit of cinnamon will change all that. Martha Stewart calls for fresh ground nutmeg. You make the call. A little goes a long way. A little bit of pepper to complete the old yin yang, and then a splash of optional wine. Give the sauce a minute or two for the flavors to blend and the alcohol to evaporate.

    Now you have a sinfully delightful concoction that is faintly suggestive of egg nog. It’s almost a shame you have to add the cheese. In fact, you can get away with forgoing the cheese entirely. It’s up to you.

    Remove the sauce from the heat and add the cheese and stir. You don’t need to cook cheese. Just allow it to melt into the sauce and thicken it. You’ve now turned your béchamel sauce into what the French call a Mornay Sauce.

    Back to the mac. You want it just a bit underdone. Thoroughly drain, then stick it back in the pan (off the heat), and pour in the sauce and stir, then pour into a 1 ½ quart casserole dish. The mac should be practically swimming in the sauce.

    Now it’s crunch time. Every good mac and cheese needs some crunch. Back in the old days, French chefs who left out the crunch were exiled in disgrace to the penal colony at Devil’s Island. For crunch, you want to sprinkle some shredded cheese on top (easy does it), along with some grated Parm. Also, tear up two slices of bread, crumb them in a blender, and sprinkle the crumbs on top.

    Pop the casserole in the oven for about 30 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and the top is browned. Remove from the oven, and allow to rest at room temperature for about five minutes. The will give the sauce time to congeal a bit and for some real good crunch action to develop on the top layer.

    Mac and cheese usually has to settle for a supporting role in a meal, but this stuff simply cries out for star treatment. Heap a large portion onto a plate, serve with salad and whatever bread you have on hand, and bon appetite. Double the recipe and you will have enough on hand to get you through one of those notorious southern California winters.

    Serves four.

Published On: January 25, 2007