August 12, 2010

Mac & Cheese Bake Off

A few weeks ago, some friends and I were out to dinner, having a few drinks, and the subject of mac and cheese came up. We all love food, and the fact that we spend dinner time talking about other food is totally normal. This time, though, talking wasn't enough. Someone decided that we should have a cook off to decide who makes the best. So, a couple of days later, the date and locations were set. I stole the rules from the invitation... see below.

"The rules:
- must be prepared in a 9" x 9" tin foil pan so that everyone's dish appears the same to the judges.
- must contain pasta, cheese sauce (can more than one type of cheese), spice(s) and no more than two complimentary ingredients.  For example, an acceptable entry could be elbow macaroni, basil cheese sauce, vienna sausage and SPAM.  (the dish should be similar to a side item not a meal).
- your dish will be baked at our house so that all entries will be served hot at the same time. "

I've never really made mac and cheese before. I mean, I've made similar things, and I know how to make a bechamel sauce, but never an actual macaroni and cheese dish. I figured I would try, so I bought about 8 kinds of cheese and went home to invent something. The night before the bake-off, I made a couple of test batches.

Test Mac & Cheese

I used two different pastas, two different cheese sauces, and learned some new things. I also remembered how much sauce the pasta soaks up. In the end, I took what I learned, but made something completely different. See below.

Ready to Bake


So, off I went to my friend's house with my mac and cheese in tow. There were three other entries. All very different! We ate (too much), we judged, and apparently, I won. I owe it all to the test batch learnings. Here are the entries (you can see we don't follow rules very well):

I think we should have these cook-off "competitions" more often. What should we make for our next cook-off?

I played with this recipe a few times, so it is probably not exact. When you taste the cheese sauce, before mixing with the pasta, it should be a bit sharper than you'd like. The flavors mellow out in the oven. Here is my (approximate) recipe for Sage & Garlic Five Cheese Macaroni and Cheese:

This makes enough for a 9X9 baking dish.

1 lb. (16 oz.) Gemelli pasta (you can use whatever you like, but this is what I used)
2 1/4 tbsp unsalted butter
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsp flour
3 cups 1% milk
3/4 cup heavy cream

All cheese measurements are by weight!
6 oz. shredded Asiago cheese, plus more for top
1 1/2 oz. cream cheese
3.5 oz. Delice de Bourgogne (soft, buttery cheese with a rind - only use the soft part, no rind)
1.35 oz. Gorgonzola Dolce (again, it's what I used, but use whatever blue cheese you like)
3 oz. Havarti cheese

3 tbsp chopped fresh sage
Kosher salt
Fresh cracked black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Melt butter in a large sauce pan over medium-low/medium heat. Add minced garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes, until fragrant. Add flour to make a roux. Stir until flour and butter mixture are combined and flour has cooked a bit, but do not let this mixture brown. Add milk and heavy cream in a steady stream while whisking to prevent lumps. Cook sauce for 3-4 minutes until it begins to thicken, then add cheeses. Stir until all cheese is melted into the sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste and remove from heat. Stir in sage.

While sauce is cooking, boil pasta in salted water for about two minutes less than directions on package. Remember, you will be baking this in the oven, so the pasta will continue to cook.

Once pasta and sauce are done, drain pasta and pour into sauce mixture. Stir to combine. Pour pasta into baking dish and top with additional shredded cheese or breadcrumb topping (if you must). Bake at 400 for 30-35 minutes or until top is golden brown. You can also bake for 20 minutes and broil for 3-4 minutes to get the top brown, if you are using a broiler-safe baking dish.

Note: this recipe would also be great with some crispy pancetta stirred in before baking.

August 4, 2010

Cravings... lead to learning?

A little over a year ago, I moved from South Florida to Seattle, WA. I have really liked living here, and the food is great, but there are just some things you can't get here. I lived in Florida for my entire life before last year, and I was never too far from whatever I wanted to eat (even if that meant driving for 3 hours). Now, it's a whole different story.

A couple of months after I moved here, I realized that I would have to learn to make some of the favorite things that I took for granted in South Florida. One of the first on my list was pastelitos. In South Florida, especially Miami, you can get pastelitos on almost every corner. They are Cuban pastries that can have a sweet or savory filling, and they are delicious! I got a craving for them a few months after moving here, did some research, and started making them. 

Pastelitos are pretty easy to make, once you get the hang of it. I had two difficulties: finding guava paste and working with puff pastry. The solution to problem #1 was to either spend $6 for a bar at a specialty store or bring back a whole bunch on my next trip to Florida. The solution to problem #2 was to play around until I figured it out... and to watch Alton Brown teach me the tricks on Good Eats. Puff the Magic Pastry was the title of Season 4, Episode 11, and we basically learn that the number one rule of puff pastry is "keep it cold". This requires a lot of movement back to the freezer/refrigerator and keeping the sheet pan in the refrigerator until ready to bake. It seems like a lot of work, but it's really worth it.

I made guava, guava and cream cheese, sweetened cream cheese, and ground beef (the traditional four). I also made the mistake of bringing them to work, so now I get weekly requests for pastelitos. I think my next craving-learning experience will be Cuban Bread... mmmmm.

I am having trouble with my computer, so I will post pictures and a recipe later.