More on Mac n Cheese

Move over apple pie. I do believe that macaroni and cheese is slowly taking over as the quintessential, all American standard. Well, perhaps I speak too soon. Nevertheless, it’s right up there with baseball and apple pie. And like all things American, mac n cheese is so versatile. I mean, think about it. Hundreds of cheeses in the culinary glossary from which to choose. Lots of pasta shapes, too. That spells creativity to me.

I’ll admit that I didn’t exactly grow up with macaroni and cheese. Being Italian, macaroni was a staple in my home. However, it was usually adorned with some type of red sauce, meatballs, or at least a vegetable sautéed in garlic and oil. I remember the time I asked my grandmother for mac n cheese. I had seen it on a television commercial. She proceeded to serve me macaroni laden with ricotta and Parmigiano cheeses. Delicious. But definitely not was I was looking for. It wasn’t yellow! My Mom eventually got the picture, and from then on the macaroni and cheese I was served came straight out of a box. Those convenient varieties still exist. But it’s the homemade and restaurant made creations that we’re all really after, isn’t it? And talk about your comfort food. Hot and steamy pasta loaded with all types of gooey cheese in a creamy sauce. How bad could that be on a cold winter’s day?

I’ve conducted lots of experimentation where mac n cheese is concerned. When I first began, I used only the processed cheese that so many of my friends who grew up with Southern Soul Food swore by. I usually served it right out of the saucepan. As my horizons expanded, so did my recipe collection. And recipes do abound. Of course, they almost always start with a béchamel cream sauce. Easy enough to prepare. What I like about Phyllis’ recipe (below) is that her béchamel incorporates shallots and garlic directly into the roux. Ingenious, as far as I’m concerned. If your base sauce boasts lots of flavor, you can only move up on the taste scale as you begin to fold in your cheeses. I use the plural here, because that’s really the only way to go. A combination of cheeses can only intensify and build a complexity that your mac n cheese is craving. What cheeses? The choice is wide open to you. Use your favorites. If you like the way they taste with crackers and wine, you’ll love them in your dish. Try to balance sharp with mellow, however. Too much either way and you might be disappointed.

Now, I mentioned that I used to spoon my mac n cheese straight from the saucepan. Kind of shortsighted at the time. A really magnificent macaroni and cheese should be baked. It gives the cheese, cream sauce and pasta some time to meld and get acquainted. And the crust that baking produces on top is a must. Whether you’re using breadcrumb or crumbled crackers, the contrast between the crunch and cream is heavenly. One note. Be sure to prepare your macaroni al dente. That’s to say, ever so slightly underdone. It will continue to cook in the oven.

Additions to your mac n cheese recipes can include smoky bacon or ham, or a spicy chorizo. I sometimes add steamed broccoli or spinach. Any complementary ingredient will contribute to a whole new dimension. And it will all be scrumptious. It’s like I said. We Americans are extremely resourceful. Mac n cheese is no different. No matter what flavorings you add, it will always be a quintessentially American dish.

Photographer Bill Brady
Written by Victor Ribaudo
Recipe by Phyllis Kirigin, aka sweetpaprika
Food Stylist BrianPreston Campbell
Blog syndicated at the datingsymbol.com

Cheese Sophistication

ITALIAN CHEESECAKE

With Vanilla Wafer Crust

This light, ethereal Italian cheesecake will not disappoint. Unlike the New York style cheesecake which traditionally uses only cream cheese, the Italian version includes sour cream for tang and ricotta for lightness as well as cream cheese for structure.  The citrus zest is a must.

This cheesecake was inspired by one served in the 1990s in a little northern Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village called New Port Alba.  It’s both rich and delicate.  You can serve it with a few fresh berries or a fresh fruit coulis and a dollop of whipped cream.  Just don’t overwhelm the luscious cheesecake.

Vanilla Wafer Crust

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

20 vanilla wafers (Nila is a good choice)

1 T sugar

4 oz. butter, melted

Tightly cover the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan with a piece of heavy duty aluminum foil.  In the bowl of a food processor, combine the wafers and sugar. Process until the wafers are fine crumbs.  Drizzle butter into the crumb mixture.  Pulse to combine. Press this mixture into the bottom and up the sides of the pan.. Place in the oven on the middle rack and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool completely.

Filling

1 lb. whole milk ricotta cheese

1 lb. sour cream

1 lb. cream cheese (or mascarpone)

1 ½ cups granulated sugar

1 stick sweet butter, melted

Pinch of salt

3 large eggs

3 T flour

3 T cornstarch

1 T freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 ½ T pure vanilla extract

¼ t fiori di sicilia (optional)*

Finely grated zest from one orange and one lemon

Have all filling ingredients at room temperature.

In a large mixing bowl beat together ricotta, sour cream and cream cheese until well mixed.  Beat in sugar and then melted butter and pinch of salt.  Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Add flour, cornstarch, lemon juice, vanilla, fiori di sicilia and zest, beating until completely mixed.

Lower oven heat to 300 degrees.  Transfer to prepared pan and bake for one hour.  Turn off heat and let cake stay in oven, door closed, for another hour.  Remove and let cake cool completely in pan, set on a wire rack.  Cover and refrigerate.  Remove sides of pan and serve slightly chilled.

*fiori di sicilia-an intense vanilla and citrus flavoring available online from King Arthur Flour.

Cheese sophistication - www.datingsymbol.com

Cheese–Milk’s Leap Towards Immortality: Victor on Cheese

They say that long ago a man had a container made from an animal’s stomach. Not uncommon in the BC years. He filled his pouch with some fresh milk one day in preparation for a long journey. Well, the rennin from the stomach lining helped coagulate the milk, producing curds and whey. Voila! Cheese was born. Of course, there’s no way to substantiate this story. I believe it – or something like it – is true. I like to call these phenomena “food accidents.” I’m sure that’s how wine and bread leveners were discovered as well. Call me a dreamer. But isn’t it amazing how such delicious foods can have such meager and haphazard beginnings?

Cheese & Fruit, www.datingsymbol.com

There’s actually nothing meager about cheese. I believe it’s one of our most sophisticated foods. So many varieties, all with nuances that distinguish them from one another. Some have actually been knighted with the names of cities. I’m not surprised. Cheese, like no other food, shows that we are truly fortunate to possess taste buds. It speaks of history, craftsmanship and creativity. It makes for incredible pre-dinner fare, marvelous entrees and indulgent desserts. Not many foods can say that.

Soft Cheeses, www.datingsymbol.com

There are thousands of types of cheeses, from hard to runny, pungent to mild. Cheese can reflect the gentle fragrance of wind swept fields. Or it can be a bold and brassy thing that dominates the plate and fills a room with aromas. Excellent examples of the range of cheese experiences include everything from the delicate, milky texture of fresh mozzarella to the creamy, mushroom-like flavor of brie to the robust, in-your-face aroma of Roquefort. What’s for you? Well, I’m tempted to list every one of my favorites, and describe each one of them. But cheese is a purely personal thing. Really subjective. The best advice I can give is to visit a fine cheese shop, or even your supermarket, and explore. Use your eyes. What looks interesting? Take a sample. Better cheese establishments will gladly offer. Then take your choices home, and enjoy with crusty breads, fresh or dried fruits, nuts and of course, wine. You’ll know straight off what turns you on. Once you’ve established that, then you can begin to incorporate cheese into your culinary repertoire.
Italian group of cheeses, www.datingsymbol.com

I personally look to add cheese to as many recipes as I can, to heighten complexity of flavors. When I’m simmering a chicken soup, I place a pecorino Romano rind into the pot. It doesn’t melt, I assure you. For my chicken pot pie, I incorporate a sharp cheddar into the crust. Really savory. My sizzling steak almost always includes a dab of blue cheese in the final presentation. As for my cream sauces, the addition of cheese is always a refinement. I usually begin with a béchamel, and then rely on my kitchen cleverness. I stir in grated parmesan to top my steamed asparagus. Edam is added when saucing my blanched broccoli. My Alfredo sauce gets a dollop of blue cheese, too. Just my taste. It all works.

Salsa Dip & Cheese, www.datingsymbol.com

Truth is, cheese really enhances and romances a meal. When I want to dazzle my love, it’s brie en croute as an appetizer, for sure. A Gruyere soufflericota, brie en  croute for dinner, absolutely. Decadent cheesecake – especially the Italian ricotta variety – a must. It just adds richness to the occasion – especially when we’re not celebrating anything special. And that’s what I’m usually looking for. A way to make our culinary journey exceptional. Cheese surely does that. With sophistication. And in great taste.

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The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese. ~G.K. Chesterton (They obviously don’t know everything.)

Photographer Bill Brady http://bit.ly/9wFYxm
Written by Victor Ribaudo http://theribaudogroup.com
Recipe by Phyllis Kirigin, https://sweetpaprika.wordpress.com
Food Stylist Brian Preston Campbell  http://www.preston-campbell.com
Blog syndicated at http:/www.datingsymbol.com

Lasagna, Northern Italian Style

Every Italian chef worth his Parmesan lays claim to a killer lasagna.  And who doesn’t love those succulent layers of toothsome pasta, creamy béchamel, meaty ragu and salty Parmesan cheese?  With a little green salad and a hunk of yeasty bread, it’s truly a satisfying meal. This traditional northern Italian lasagna will not fall apart when you serve it but will retain is moist meaty texture.  Be careful not to overcook it or it will be mushy,

The redoubtable Italian culinary doyen Marcella Hazan insists that the pasta be freshly made to provide the structure for the harmonious layering of the ragu and béchamel sauce.  The pasta sheets do not have to be cooked before layering the lasagna if used right away.

Bolognese Sauce [ragu] (makes 2 ½ cups*)

2 T olive oil

2 T butter

¼ cup diced onion

3 T carrots in a small dice

3 T celery in a small dice

1 lb. ground chuck

2 t salt

¼ t freshly ground black pepper

1 cup dry white wine

½ cup milk

1/8 t freshly grated nutmeg

2 ½ cups canned Italian peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano D.O.P. certified**

In a 5 ½ -quart Dutch enameled cast iron Dutch oven or stainless steel pot, place olive oil, butter and onions,  Sauté just until onions are translucent.  Add carrots and celery and continue to cook gently for a few minutes.  Break up the ground beef and add it to the pot.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook until meat has lost its red color.  Do not brown.  Add wine and increase heat to medium high and cook stirring from time to time until wine evaporates.

Lower heat and add milk and  nutmeg until milk evaporates.  The milk keeps the meat sweet and creamy.  Stir in the tomatoes and break up with wooden spoon.  When the sauce comes to a simmer, lower the heat to maintain the barest simmer and continue cooking with the cover ajar for 3 ½ hours.  Stir occasionally and taste for seasoning.

*It wouldn’t be a bad idea to double this recipe and reserve half for future use.  It freezes perfectly.

**The D.O.P. seal certifies that the tomatoes were grown and packed in the San Marzano region of Italy.

Basic Egg Pasta (yield: 1 ½ lbs. dough)

3 ½ cups sifted all-purpose flour

4 large eggs

1 T water

½ t salt

Place flour, eggs, water and salt in bowl of food processor with metal blade.  Pulse until dough comes together.  Remove dough from bowl and hand knead until dough is smooth, about 2 minutes.  Divide into 4 balls, cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 20 minutes.  Roll out dough following directions for pasta maker or pasta attachment for Kitchen Aid mixer.  Thin dough to setting of #4 or #5 for lasagna sheets.

Béchamel Sauce (makes 2 ½ cups)

3 cups milk

6 T butter

4 ½ T all purpose flour

¼ t salt

Heat the milk in a small pan until you see bubbles around the edge.  Take off heat.  Melt butter in a 6-cup saucepan.  Add flour and stir with a wooden spoon for 2 minutes.  Take off heat and add milk very slowly at first, stirring continually and then ¼ cup at a time.  Turn heat to low and add salt.  Stir and cook until béchamel thickens to the consistency of yoghurt.

Assembly

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Use a 14-inch lasagna pan.   Cut pasta sheets to fit the pan.  Smear bottom of pan with a little Bolognese sauce.  Include fat skimmed off top.   Arrange a layer of pasta sheets to cover sauce.  Spread enough Bolognese sauce to cover and dot with meat.  Then spread béchamel over meat sauce.  Sprinkle on Parmesan cheese, lightly if béchamel tastes salty, more freely if bland.  Continue layering up to 6 layers and at least ½ inch below edge of pan.  The top layer should be béchamel sprinkled with Parmesan and dotted with butter.  Bake in top 1/3 of oven for 10-15 minutes until a golden crust forms on top.  If crust hasn’t formed after 10 minutes, raise the heat a little for the last five minutes.  Set aside to settle for 5 – 8 minutes and serve from pan.   Buon Appetito!

(Adapted from Marcella Hazan, The Classic Italian Cookbook)

Photographer Bill Brady http://bit.ly/9wFYxm
Food Stylist Brian Preston Campbell

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