Southern Comfort: Mac and Cheese
January is a tough month for Susie. With each passing day, as the calendar numbers get higher, my winter-resistant mother is slowly unraveling at the seams.
Although seasonal changes are already in place by December, Susie the sun goddess is adequately distracted by her uniquely decorated Christmas tree and a mailbox full of holiday greeting cards.
Until. January 1.
Almost like clockwork, my mother's tolerance of winter rapidly diminishes, and her mood takes a turn for the Arctic worst. It starts out as simple annoyance, but as soon as that first layer of ice covers the streets, my mother's emotional state turns into one of disgust and ultimately, inconsolable despair.
Right about now, as January comes to a close, Susie typically is boarding a plane headed for southwest Florida, but this year, she's delaying her escape due to my upcoming wedding in Puerto Rico. With the wedding (and tropical breezes) still a month away, my mother is climbing the wintry walls.
Yesterday's blustery, frozen conditions even had me yearning for comfort from the cold. The first thing that came to mind was macaroni and cheese, one of my top-five culinary salves. It had been just about a year since my last batch, which is how I justified the indulgence to the cholesterol-monitoring part of my brain.
The key to a soul-soothing mac and cheese is neither the amount nor the kind of cheese used -- that's up to you. Me, I prefer a sharp cheddar (and have tinkered with gruyere in the past), but if you like a Velveetta-y mac and cheese, THAT'S O.K. The key is in the white sauce. By white sauce, I mean milk that's thickened with a roux (equal parts fat and flour), seasoned with dry mustard, cayenne and nutmeg and thoroughly pre-heated for the addition of cheese.
One of the most commonly made mistakes with white sauce is taking it off the heat too soon. A white sauce needs to heat to about 160 degrees or thick enough to create a prominent streak on the back of a wooden spoon. This will take about 10 minutes over medium heat. Patience pays off, trust me. Once the white sauce is thick enough, THEN you can add the shredded cheese. For the smoothest, clump-free results, vigorously whisk the cheese into the white sauce until incorporated.
If you get that sauce down, baby, you've entered mac and cheese heaven. Pour it over those elbows, spritz the top with some bread crumbs, and wait just 30 minutes for the winter healing to begin.
While the pan was in the oven, I called Susie and got an earful of winter blues. I wished she lived close enough so I could have invited her for supper. A plate of mac and cheese is no magic carpet ride to Florida, but I'm confident it would have helped her forget what ails her, even for just a few minutes.
By the way, I paired my mac with stewed tomatoes, which can simmer while the mac is in the oven. It's a yin-yang of fat and acid that works beautifully.
Here's your chance to tell the class what comforts you like a sun visor in the middle of winter - please share in the comments area below!
Join me at noon today, for an hour of kitchen clatter, on all kinds of seasoned matters.
Macaroni and Cheese
9 ounces elbow macaroni
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus a little extra for greasing the pan
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese (about 8 ounces)
Optional: 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup plain bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 350. Grease the sides of a glass or ceramic baking dish with butter. Cook macaroni in salted boiling water until al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain pasta and transfer to buttered dish.
In a medium saucepan, add butter and allow to melt over low-medium heat. Add flour, and with a wooden spoon, stir quickly to combine and form a roux. Continue to stir, and cook for about 1 minute, making sure flour lumps disappear. Roux will be a golden yellow color.
Add milk, mustard, salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne and stir to combine. Cook on medium-low heat, stirring regularly to make sure milk does not scald, until mixture is thickened. The mixture is ready when a streak on the back of your wooden spoon is prominent. Add cheese and stir or whisk constantly until mixture is smooth and free of lumps. If using Worcestershire sauce, add now.
Pour cheese sauce over pasta to cover evenly. Top it off with a layer of bread crumbs. Place dish in oven and bake for about 30 minutes, until cheese begins to bubble. To crisp up bread crumb topping, place dish under broiler for about 1 minute. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly. Makes about 6 servings.
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 bell pepper, finely chopped
1 15 ounce-can whole plum tomatoes, including juices, (or if you're lucky enough, 6 plum tomatoes from your garden, fresh or canned)
Hot sauce of choice
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional: Herbs, such as oregano or thyme in the winter, basil in the summer
Heat a medium saucepan over medium heat and swirl oil inside until it coats the bottom surface evenly. Add onion, garlic and bell pepper, and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and stir to combine. Bring mixture up to a boil, then reduce heat and cook, at a simmer, covered.
Within 10 minutes or so, tomatoes will start to soften and break down; use the back of a wooden spoon to help the process, if desired. Cook until desired consistency and season with hot sauce and salt and pepper.
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