Friday, June 17, 2016
Quintessential Mac and Cheese
Gustaf and I decided to walk the perimeter of Sodermalm a couple of weeks ago, stopping at the Hornstull Marknad for sustenance along the way. This market is a great place to try out the latest food trucks, including some of my favorites including burritos at The Good Gringo, sliders at Flippin Burgers, and crepes at Bon Coin. On this occassion, there was a lovely couple with a table set up serving macaroni and cheese. It was such an unlikely thing to find at a Swedish market, we had to try it. And it was wonderful. Really wonderful. Cheesy and creamy but not too rich. It had a bread crumb topping and to top it all off, they drizzled it with some truffle oil and put some grated truffled cheese on top. It made us very happy. So happy, that I was a bit annoyed. OK, really annoyed. Up to this point, I had felt that I made a pretty good mac and cheese. But this mac and cheese blew mine away. Clearly I had to up my game.
On our walk, Gustaf and I discussed the qualities that made this mac and cheese wonderful. We decided that the following items were key:
1) The pasta needed to be cooked slightly past al dente. Not mushy but yielding.
2) For crunch, buttery toasted bread crumbs for a topping
3) The cheese sauce needed to be silky and rich tasting but still mild with a good mouth feel. How would we achieve this? I have always used a good quality aged cheddar for my sauce. But in fact, cheddar is not a great melting cheese. It has a grainy quality that keeps the sauce from being silky. Finally, we decided that if we used a combination of aged cheddar, parmesan, and plain trashy American cheese, we might hit the right flavor and mouth feel.
Here is how we did it:
Serves 4 to 6 persons
Bread crumb topping:
3 to 4 slices white bread
25 grams butter
1/4 teaspoon dried herbs (like rosemary or thyme) or 1/2 teaspoon finely minced fresh herb
a pinch of salt
50 grams butter
5 tablespoons flour
3/4 liters milk
250 grams grated cheddar
100 grams grated parmesan
5 slices American cheese
1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
salt and peppar to taste
500 grams pasta
Truffle oil, for an optional garnish
Make the toasted crumbs:
Prepare the crumbs by putting the bread in a food processor and blitzing until you have fine crumbs. Mix the bread crumbs and herbs and salt together. You can toast the crumbs in the oven or in a pan on the stove.
For on the stove: Put the butter in the pan, with the heat turned up high. When the butter is melted, add the breadcrumb mixture and toss until the crumbs are coated with butter. Stir the bread crumbs in the pan until they are lightly browned and toasted.
In the oven: Melt the butter in the microwave or in a small pan on the stove and toss the butter, breadcrumbs, salt, and herbs together until all the crumbs are coated in butter. Pour the mixture onto a baking sheet and put in the oven at the highest heat or with the broiler/grill on. Cook, stiring occasionally, until the crumbs are a golden brown, making sure you keep a close eye so that they don't work.
Set the crumbs aside to cool.
Cook the pasta:
Put a big pot of water to boil. When the water comes to a boil, add a generous amount of salt and the pasta. Bring the water back to a boil and cook it for the time as directed on the pasta box. Taste the pasta and cook it one to two minutes longer, so that it is slightly past the al dente stage. Drain, the pasta, reserving a cup of the pasta water, in case you want to thin the pasta sauce.
Making the cheese sauce:
While the pasta is cooking, you can make the sauce. First grate all the cheeses and set aside.
With a pot on medium heat, melt the butter. Add the flour to the butter and stir until combined. Continue stirring for a few minutes. Add the milk and stir quickly with a whisk to get out the lumps. As you add the milk, the sauce will thicken quickly. Just keep stirring. Don't worry if the sauce seems a bit grainy. As you continue to stir, the sauce will become smoother. Continue stirring until the milk comes to a boil and thickens. I alternate between a whisk to keep the sauce smooth and a spoon to scrape the bottom of the pan.
Once the sauce starts to boil, turn down the heat to low and add the cheeses, a pinch of salt and mustard. Whisk until the cheeses are melted. Taste and adjust the salt and add a bit of pepper.
Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta and mix until all the pasta is coated. If the sauce seems to thick for your taste, then it with a bit of the preserved pasta water.
To serve, scoop out some of the mac and cheese into a bowl. Sprinkle with truffle oil, if desired. Sprinkle on a generous portion of buttered crumbs. Eat while hot.