Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Layered Macaroni and Cheese (Macaroni Pudding)

Made the macaroni and cheese last night, which was quite a success. I especially enjoyed making the bechamel sauce, which is known as a "mother sauce" of French cuisine. Now that's a great phrase: Mother Sauce. This macaroni and cheese, then, was the mother of all mac n cheese dishes. And boy did it taste like it.
This recipe is from 1802 (I added a year when mentioning it yesterday, making it one year younger than it actually is) and comes from the American Heritage Cookbook And Illustrated History Of American Eating & Drinking (left). We purchased this for two dollars at a local book fair along with about ten other cookbooks. One of these cookbooks, The Congressional Club Cookbook, seemed like it would be a perfect source for classic macaroni and cheese. The recipes in this book are all gleaned from the kitchens of congressional wives and makes an interesting history of dining as a senator, congressman, or president. My favorite section in the book is the "Men's Only" chapter, designed specifically for that rare senator that can cook. Lots of game, liquor-based substances, and generally gross stuff in that chapter. Strangely enough, the only recipe that slightly resembled what we were hoping to eat had ground beef in it. No. Thanks. Next! American Heritage Cookbook to the rescue.
The book, as many cookbooks do, tried to delight the reader with an anecdote regarding macaroni and cheese, but the story falls flat, at least for the modern reader, mostly because it's just plain weird. It concerns a dinner with Thomas Jefferson in which the lead character confuses the macaroni for onions and the cheese for liquor. It could be amusing, I guess, were it 1802.
I used skim milk; which, coupled with the butter, made a slightly less-fatty sauce than originally intended by the recipe. I didn't find the dish too healthy, though, as it was laden with more than three cups (by all estimates) of two types of cheddar cheese, some parmesan cheese layers, and the slightly-less-sinful-than-usual bechamel. Health concerns aside, it was delicious, which is all you can really ask for in a macaroni and cheese. The top was perfectly crusty and crisp, the bottom of the casserole dish had just enough macaroni stuck to it, forcing the eater to work a little harder for a slice, and the layers melted into one another perfectly.
Again, we ate our fill for dinner (with his sister, which was a nice treat) and had more than half left over. We had so much, in fact, that two separate dishes were made. We're saving one for later in the week -- I'm debating whether or not to freeze it, since I'm not sure if it will do well in the freezer. Will that make it taste all strange when it's finally re-baked? Nobody knows.

Macaroni Pudding (aka Delightfully Plain and Simple Mac N-Cheese)
Begin by boiling a large pot of lightly salted water. While it is working itself into a boil, begin grating your cheese. The recipe calls for two cups, but that's just not enough. Try for three; four, if you're the adventurous type.
We used 1 1/2 cups of light sharp cheddar and 1 1/2 cups of dark, milder cheddar. We also purchased some pre-ground parmesan cheese -- again, not in the recipe, but an essential cheese in my opinion.
When the water is boiling, throw in two and a half to three cups of dried macaroni. It should only take about seven minutes to cook. Stir often to prevent stickiness and be sure to test well before the seven minute mark. You'll want pasta that's just firm to the bite, cooked al dente.
When the macaroni is finished cooking, drain quickly and begin rinsing in cold water. Be sure to move the noodles around as you rinse to prevent them from sticking to one another. I did this by setting them in our salad spinner and immersing the whole thing with cold water, stirring as I filled the spinner. This was a nice way to do it because the bowl underneath the grates held the cold water, allowing it to really get around the noodles as I stirred. I drained the spinner and left the noodles to dry.
Meanwhile, I got started on the bechamel. This is the fun part. Melt, over medium heat, a quarter cup of butter (half a stick). Don't melt it too fast -- the butter must not burn. After it is melted, add 1/4 cup of flour and begin whisking. Whisk together until the butter and flour are completely combined. I actually sifted the flour right into the butter in order to make it as smooth as possible, but that's probably an unnecessary step. I just wanted to try out our new flour mill.
Next, begin adding the milk. Like I said, we used skim milk, mostly because that's what we keep around the house. It worked very well, but I imagine that Careme is spinning in his grave. You need to add it quite slowly and whisk constantly, using 2 1/4 cups of milk in all. Add slowly; whisk constantly: this is the mantra of the mother sauce.
Your sauce will begin to thicken up as you continue to whisk. Watch carefully for small bubbles to appear on the top of the sauce, which indicates that it is beginning to thicken, and be sure that the sauce does not stick to the bottom of the pan. You'll need the heat at a relatively low medium temperature throughout the process. If the sauce appears too watery, just keep whisking and turn the heat up slightly. Too high, though, and it will burn. I wish, now, that we had added some red pepper flakes to the sauce itself, just because how tasty would that be? Very.
After the sauce is done, turn the heat very low and begin assembling the dish in layers. One layer of macaroni, one of cheese, one of macaroni, one of cheese, and so on, until your casserole dish is full. You may need to take breaks in order to stir the sauce as you layer, because it will begin to get hard if it is not in motion.
Next, pour the sauce over the layered macaroni and cheese. Pour slowly so that the dish does not overflow. Top with more cheese (more cheese? how is that possible?!) and pop in a 400º oven for 35 minutes, until the top is golden brown and bubbly.
Then, we eat. Yum.
We served this dish with lightly buttered green beans which were blanched in boiling water for about nine minutes, then dried in a hot frying pan. We added about a tablespoon of butter to the pan after the beans were dry, stirred it around with the beans, and added some pepper.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for putting this on the internet! I have this cookbook, but I recently moved and haven't unpacked it yet. I needed the recipe for Thanksgiving. Thank you!

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