Unfortunately, in my quest to someday become a skinny cook (which will likely never happen), I try to avoid eating stuff like that. My 5-day-a-week routine involves mostly protein, lots of veggies and of course wine, which I am incapable of giving up. Sigh. As Henry is fond of saying, he eats and I drink!
But when you are invited to a casual dinner party and asked to bring a side dish, what should that be? As far as I am concerned, this is not the time for elaborate, esotheric dishes. Who wants that? I think people would much rather sink their forks into comfort food like mac and cheese as opposed to say, curried lima beans in casserole (I did not make that up. There is actually a recipe for it in one of my retro cookbooks, complete with cans of cream of mushroom soup and French-fried onions).
Think about the plate in front of you. If it had a pile of curried lima beans next to a hunk of mac and cheese on it, where would your fork go first? I rest my case.
So for that dinner party the other night, I made my favorite mac and cheese from Scott Peacock"s brilliant book "The Gift of Southern Cooking" with Edna Lewis. It's similar to the one we made at Watershed and it's the only mac and cheese recipe you will ever need. If you're going to spring for it and make the stuff, then it may as well be the best "stuff" ever. Based on the compliments around the table the other night (and every other time I've made it), this recipe more than qualifies.
MACARONI AND CHEESE (adapted slightly from "The Gift of Southern Cooking" by Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis)
1 lb. elbow macaroni, uncooked
10 oz. (2 1/2 cups) extra-sharp cheddar, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/3 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
3 teaspoons dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/2 cups sour cream
4 eggs, lightly beaten (I used extra-large)
1 small sweet onion, grated
3 cups half-and-half
3 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
8 oz. (2 cups) extra-sharp cheddar, grated
1 cup panko or good breadcrumbs
Additional Kosher salt to taste
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add macaroni and cook, stirring frequently to prevent sticking, for about 9 minutes or until just tender. Do not overcook as it will further cook in the oven.
Drain well and transfer to a large buttered baking dish (mine measured about 12 x 15 x 4). Stir in the cubed cheddar and set aside.
Place the flour, salt, dry mustard, black pepper, cayenne pepper and nutmeg in a large mixing bowl, whisking to blend. Add the sour cream, followed by the eggs and whisk again until well-blended. Whisk in the grated onion, half-and-half, heavy cream and Worcestershire. Taste carefully to adjust seasoning (it should taste somewhat salty as much of it will be absorbed by the macaroni) and pour over the cooked macaroni and cubed cheese in the baking dish.
Preheat oven to 350-degrees. In a small bowl, mix together the grated cheddar, the panko and salt to taste. Sprinkle evenly over the macaroni mixture. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes or until the custard is set around the edge of the baking dish but still a bit loose in the center. Remove from oven and cool for 10 minutes to allow the custard to thicken.
Serves 10 - 12
* Now here's the thing: this is a really easy recipe. The only cumbersome thing is grating the onion, but that is no big deal. You don't have to make a white sauce over the stove and you really don't have to do anything except combine a bunch of ingredients, grate some cheese and cook up some pasta. So make the effort and take the time to grate your nutmeg as opposed to using the pre-ground variety. As a matter of fact, if you have any of it in your spice cabinet, throw it away now and buy some whole nutmeg and an inexpensive nutmeg grinder (or use your trusty microplane). This will make a huge difference in anything you make or bake which calls for nutmeg.
* Also make sure to use the sharpest cheddar you can get your hands on. This is not the time for wimpy cheese, like mild cheddar. You want good, assertive cheddar so your mac and cheese has that edgy snap to it.
* Salt is also crucial to this dish, but not after it is baked. If you wait until then to add salt, it will just sit on the top and taste salty, but your mac and cheese will be bland. That's why you need to add it to the cooking water, add it to the custard and add it to the topping. I know, I know - we are all trying to limit our intake. But as I said before, if you are going to bite the bullet and indulge in this, then it might as well be to the fullest. You can mend your evil ways tomorrow.
* Another thing. Do yourself a favor and place your baking dish on a larger baking sheet when you put it in the oven. It's unlikely that it will ooze over (if it does, you added too much custard or used a too-small baking pan) but cover your bases anyway. Or your oven floor.
* I took this out of the oven an hour-and-a-half before we transported it to my friend's house for dinner and it was another hour before we served it. The key was covering it tightly with heavy-duty foil. It stayed warm and melty until we devoured it.
* I'll see you all at the gym next week........