What, exactly, is Macaroni & Cheese? How is it defined? How broad is its domain and where do its borders lie? Are there any ingredients, beyond the iconic dyad, that are incommutable? Are there any that are irredeemably heterodox? More importantly, is that kit form ‘mac-n-cheez’ stuff that comes in a box actually food …or Soylent Orange?
These are questions that we’ll be exploring (in both thought and deed) in this and future installments of our new series, ‘Macrodissection & Cheese’.
Your comments and ideas are welcomed as we research, formulate, and test (extensively!) our hypotheses on what defines this supreme side-dish.
The dictionary defines macaroni & cheese as “macaroni prepared in a cheese sauce” which, not surprisingly, raises more questions than it answers. Does absolutely any kind of macaroni comply? Are all cheeses equivalent and interchangeable in the unblinking eyes of the dictionary (Aged Stilton and Velveeta, for instance)? And what exactly constitutes a sauce, anyway?
Here’s what the dictionary has to say about ‘Sauce’:
1. A flavorful seasoning or relish served as an accompaniment to food, especially a liquid dressing or topping for food.
2. Stewed fruit, usually served with other foods.
3. Something that adds zest, flavor, or piquancy.
4. Impudent speech or behavior; impertinence or sauciness. (Informal)
5. Alcoholic liquor. (Slang)
Is it just me, or is the dictionary making things worse, not better? A ‘flavorful seasoning or relish’??? ‘Stewed fruit’??? What the heck is going on?
It seems to me that fruit isn’t the only thing getting stewed. I suspect the authors of that entry might have been hitting the old #5. But then again, maybe that’s just me being #4.
For our mac & cheese-related purposes, we need to fan away the obfuscatory fog and reign in the ambiguity a bit. Let’s start by defining a ’sauce’ as a ‘coating’, and a ‘cheese sauce’ as ‘a coating that contains, incorporates, or facilitates the adherence of, cheese.’ That gives us a working definition that’s quite a bit clearer without being too limiting, and it gives us a mandate that’s broad, but not open-ended.
With that definition in hand (and I do realize I may be flirting with a rhetorical tautology here), I present this recipe for an upscale mac & cheese. Its ’sauce’ is a fragrant, flavorful oil that incorporates and facilitates the adherence of a deliciously multi-faceted Grana Padano cheese. Like many a classic mac & cheese, it’s topped with bread crumbs, but these bread crumbs are a bit more posh, containing dried wild mushrooms. Is it a “true” macaroni and cheese? I do believe it is.
And rich? Whew, boy! (Today’s Special: Gout!) It may not be health food, folks, but it certainly is delicious, and the good news is: you don’t need much to be satisfied!
Here’s a photo of the Wild Mushroom and Grana Padano Macaroni and Cheese below.
1 lb penne rigate (or similar pasta shape)
1/4 cup mixed dried wild mushrooms, broken into small pieces (see Cook’s Notes)
2 Tbsp plain bread crumbs
3 Tbsp small capers, well drained and dried with a paper towel
Olive oil for frying the capers
3 Tbsp Porcini oil (or extra virgin olive oil), divided
2 Tbsp heavy cream
1 cup grated Grana Padano cheese, divided
Cook the pasta in salted water according to package directions.
While the pasta is cooking, use a spice grinder or other small mill to process the dried mushrooms in batches until nearly powdered but still slightly coarse (about the same texture as medium-grind black pepper.)
In a dry skillet over medium heat, combine the bread crumbs and mushroom powder. Stir well until lightly toasted and remove the crumb mixture from the pan. Set aside.
In a small saucepan, pour about 1/4 inch of the plain olive oil. Add the capers (see Cook’s Notes) . Heat the oil to medium-high and fry the capers until the sizzling subsides and capers have just taken on a bit of color, about 3 -5 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels. (Save the caper-flavored oil for something else.)
When the pasta is cooked, drain it well and toss with two tablespoons of the Porcini oil. Drizzle on the heavy cream and toss again. Add 3/4 cup of the cheese and mix well. Pour the pasta into a shallow casserole or baking pan, top with the breadcrumb/mushroom mixture. Drizzle the remaining porcini oil onto the breadcrumbs and sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese. Place under the broiler for a few minutes until the surface is lightly browned. Sprinkle with the fried capers just before serving. Serves at least 4.
You can use a mix of any of the following dried mushrooms: Morel, Chanterelle, Porcini (AKA Cepes), Oyster, Shiitake, Black Trumpet, Matsutake, or Cremini.
When frying capers, you can avoid dangerous spatters by drying the capers well and always heating them up in the oil, rather than heating the oil first and dropping the capers into the hot oil. Heating the capers in the oil allows the moisture inside to be released gradually – and safely!
Please join us tomorrow to read our new article, Chefs in Italy Fight Government Bans on Foreign Food, which contains surprising information about the Italian government’s recent ban of ethnic restaurants and ingredients.
If you liked this article on HuggingtheCoast.Com, you might also enjoy reading:
- 7 Gourmet Macaroni and Cheese Recipes From the 2008 Tilamook Contest Winners
- 7 Pasta Shapes I Have Loved (Plus 1 That Made Me Gag)
- Seared Wild Mushroom Dusted Shrimp and Scallops With Spaghetti Squash, Porcini Oil, and Grana Padano Shavings
- Chicken, Olive, and Asiago Triangolari With Sherry Braised Fennel
- Tutorial: Make Your Own Garlic Scape Spice