Mac N Cheese: A Classic French Dish

17 03 2008

One of my first homework assignments in culinary school was to make macaroni and cheese using a cheese I had never heard of before and a pasta shape I had never used before.  Having recently returned from my first stint in France, the cheese thing posed a bit of a challenge.  I ended up bringing in Pennette Zamorano, being less well-versed in Spanish cheeses.  (The pasta was a bit of a cop-out, as I had used penne before – pennette being merely smaller penne – but Trader Joe’s wasn’t exactly overflowing with exotic pasta shapes.)  The results: good choice of cheese, overcooked pasta, sauce a little thick, broke when I reheated it.

Since then I have refined my macaroni and cheese recipe, but the principle remains the same.  The most important part of the dish is the béchamel sauce.  It must be creamy, not too heavy or starchy, and thin enough to accommodate large quantities of cheese.  In classic French cuisine, a béchamel with cheese (specifically Gruyère) incorporated into it is known as Mornay sauce.  Pour this over roasted or steamed cauliflower and you have Cauliflower Mornay.  Use pepper jack and cheddar and you’ve got yourself some upscale queso (or nacho cheese sauce, as it’s known to non-Texans).  Add it to pasta, and you have mac n cheese.  Over time I have come to the conclusion that a mixture of half sharp cheddar (preferably Tillamook) and half gouda is my preferred mac n cheese blend.  I also like a bit of smoked sausage, like kielbasa, mixed in for texture and flavor contrast as well as protein content.

I had pretty much resigned myself to going cheddar-less while in France, so you can imagine my surprise when, on a recent supermarket jaunt, I saw a wedge of red-waxed orange cheese prominently labeled “cheddar.”  Of course I had to buy it.  When preliminary taste tests determined that it was, in fact, real cheddar cheese, and not some weird French interpretation thereof, I knew I would be making mac n cheese in the near future.

So on Saturday, after a long afternoon fighting crowds at the BHV sale, I went to gather my mise en place for the mac n cheese.  Gouda is no problem to find here, nor is milk, pasta, or sausage.

Mac N Cheese Mise

I brought it all home and came to a horrible realization: I don’t have a whisk here.  Nick, ever confident in my culinary abilities, convinced me to make the béchamel using a wooden spoon.  I was also stressing out over the ratio of butter to flour to milk, and he (wisely) suggested that I stop being a baker for the evening and wing it.  So I melted some butter, added some flour, and stirred it over medium heat until it darkened ever so slightly and no longer smelled raw.  I then added milk a tiny bit at a time, stirring furiously and constantly with my spoon so as not to have any lumps in the finished sauce.  When I had incorporated enough milk to make a fairly thin sauce (it will thicken later), I threw in a bay leaf and seasoned the sauce with salt and pepper.  After about 15 minutes of simmering, stirring constantly, I had a nice béchamel about the thickness of heavy cream.  Into this I stirred the grated cheeses, tasted for seasoning, wished for a pinch of fresh nutmeg, and my Mornay was  ready.

Meanwhile, the pasta had been cooking, the sausage browning, and the camera malfunctioning.  I folded the pasta and sauce together, sliced the sausage with my brand-new Sabatier knife (yay!), and stirred that in as well. 

Mac n cheese

And got the camera back up and running.  As hearty a meal as this is, I thought we could use a nice salad alongside.  We had some green beans in the fridge, and I had just picked up some tasty cherry tomatoes, so I decided to combine them into a salade tiède.  I quickly sautéed the green beans in a little olive oil and removed the pan from the heat.  Then I halved the tomatoes and added them straight to the pan.  Another drizzle of olive oil, a pinch of sea salt, a few twists of black pepper, and some freshly chopped parsley, and we were in business.

Salade tiède de tomates cerises et haricots verts

Thanks in no small part to the brightly colored salad, it made an attractive plate.  (And my mother always told me that a colorful plate was a healthy one.)

Mac n cheese dinner

Oh, yeah, and it tasted good, too.








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