Wednesday, March 18, 2009

(A New) Mac and Cheese

There are a number of North American comfort food classics that I think nearly everyone has a favorite version of that they believe is the only “real” version of the meal. Trust me, I’ve seen it: arguments beginning over whether meatballs should be made with beef or pork, fistfights breaking out over whether or not there should be peas in shepherd’s pie, and friendships nearly destroyed over whether or not cream cheese should be added to mashed potatoes.

All right, I may be exaggerating slightly, but I know that even as someone who loves to try new recipes and have plenty of variety in my diet, there are certain foods that I can never quite enjoy as much as when they are made the way I like, the way I grew up eating, the way that I, in my heart of hearts, believe is the “right” way.

One of those foods is macaroni and cheese. I like it baked with breadcrumbs on top. I like it made with a mild cheddar cheese. I like it made with a basic béchamel sauce. There are about a million and one ways to make mac and cheese, but I never liked it better than when it was made in this most simple and basic way. Until now.
The September 2008 issue of Bon Appétit had this fantastic macaroni and cheese recipe that I now can’t get enough of. It’s still fairly simple, and incorporates many of the things that I love about my “original” mac and cheese: the breadcrumb topping is still there, only now it’s in the form of panko sautéed in butter with chopped parsley stirred in; the base of the cheese sauce is still a béchamel, only it is started off with some crisped pancetta and sautéed onion; the cheese is still cheddar, only this time a sharper version is used and combined with parmesan, and—and this is the real key to the brilliance of this dish—mascarpone. The mascarpone helps balance out the sharpness of the cheddar and parmesan, and also adds an incredible richness to the sauce.
The rest is done just as I’ve always done it: combine the sauce with cooked macaroni (shells work well here too), top with the panko, and bake for about thirty minutes.
We had this on a Wednesday night with Caesar salad, and though the macaroni and cheese was not the precise version I had been loving for years, it was true comfort food that I’m sure I’ll love for years to come.
Mac and Cheese with Pancetta
From Bon Appétite, September 2008
Makes 10 servings (I always halve this recipe)

8 tbsp. butter, divided
4 oz. thinly sliced pancetta, coarsely chopped
1 cup finely chopped onion
3/4 tsp. dried crushed red pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup flour
3 1/2 cups (or more) milk
2 1/2 cups coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 8- to 8.8-ounce container mascarpone cheese
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
1 lb. orecchiette, or large elbow macaroni

Melt 1 tbsp. butter in large deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add pancetta; sauté until crisp, about 5 minutes. Add onion, sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Add crushed red pepper and garlic, stir 1 minute. Stir in 3 tbsp. butter, allow to melt, then add flour and stir 1 minute. Gradually whisk in 3 1/2 cups milk, simmer until thick enough to coat spoon thickly, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Whisk in cheeses. Whisk in more milk by 1/4 cupfuls until sauce is thick but pourable. Season with salt and pepper.

Melt 4 tbsp. butter in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add panko and stir until very light golden, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in parsley.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly butter 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain well. Return pasta to pot. Add warm cheese sauce, toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer mixture to prepared baking dish. Sprinkle crumb mixture evenly over. Bake until heated through and topping is golden brown, about 30 minutes.

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