Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Halloween Mac and Cheese; The Devil's In The Details

By Hilary Havarti

Truth be told, I've never been a "detail oriented" person.
Example: When I was ten years old, I awoke with a wild hair to surprise my family with "home-made" pancakes. I grabbed the box of Bisquick from the pantry and set to work. It wasn't long before my mom turned up and cast a wary eye towards my bowl of batter, "Did you follow all the directions?" she asked with obvious skepticism. 

"Um, yeah...."
She raised her eyebrows as if to say, "Sure you did," and zombie walked over to the coffee pot to get her fix. 

Refusing to let her suspicion get the better of me, I dumped a heaping spoonful of batter onto the sizzling surface and waited for the perfect round disk to form. As the batter spread into a sad, misshapen, wafer thin smear, it resembled my creeping dread that somewhere, somehow, I'd screwed something up. Holding out hope, I chalked it up to, "the first one is always the worst one," and gave it another go. After a couple more ghetto crepe blobs adhered to the bottom of the pan, I had no choice but to call mom over, which, believe me, was the last resort. 

My mother, never one to mince words, looked at the crispy pile of batter scrapings and shook her head, "Well these are inedible."
Here's a rough approximation of the conversation that followed:
Me:"What happened?"
Mom:"How many eggs did you put in?"

I'd like to say that was the last time my attention to detail faltered but, alas, no. There are many entertaining anecdotes I could relay including the time I failed to mention to a boss that the very important meeting, the one he'd been preparing for all day, had been cancelled. Oops.

I've recounted these stories as an intro for my latest omission debacle involving mac and cheese. I'd been waiting for the heat to subside and pumpkin to be available in stores to attempt a recipe for pumpkin mac and cheese. As Halloween lurks around the corner, it seemed the time was nigh.
What intrigued me about the following recipe was (a) it didn't require a roux or a slurry because the pumpkin acts as a thickening agent for the sauce, and (b) the cheese options seemed to suggest you could use whatever you had lying around in the cheese drawer .

I have to admit, beyond the aforementioned omission of an ingredient or two, I took several liberties with this recipe. The original cheese ratio was written as follows:
4 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar, grated (about 1 1/3 cups)
4 ounces blend of melting cheeses – Mozzarella, Asiago, Fontina, etc.
1/2 cup part-skim Ricotta cheese

I ended up using a combo of Asiago, Pecorino Romano and Parmesan along with an ounce of Gruyere and 8* ounces of extra-sharp cheddar with the required ricotta. 

The first step was to build the cheese sauce by combining milk, cheese, pumpkin and Dijon mustard in a large pot. I melted the cheese and milk then added the other ingredients. Tasting the sauce, I didn't think it was cheesy enough and decided, Oh to hell with it, I'm adding *four more ounces of extra-sharp cheddar to give it some zing and nobody can stop me. That seemed to do the trick and for a few minutes I basked in the glory of my impromptu Top Chef finessing skills before soldiering on. 

According to the recipe, you dump the cooked noodles, in this case large elbow macaroni, into the pot with the cheese sauce, stir, and put everything into a buttered baking dish, top with parmesan and bake. The absence of a crumb top seemed like a gross oversight so I whipped up a topping with panko bread crumbs, butter and Parmesan and sprinkled it atop what I hoped to be my Fall mac and cheese masterpiece.

Dum da dum dum Dum! Calling for 30 minutes of oven baking time, the recipe also advised putting the mac under the broiler for three minutes to get it crispy but, after only one minute had elapsed, I could smell we had trouble in Noodle City. I yanked the pan out of the oven to find a few of the crumbs very close to charred. Able to pick off the worst, the topping was more or less salvaged (see photo below). 

Spooning out a generous serving, I took my first bite and it was obvious what was missing. I totally spaced on seasoning the cheese sauce with salt and pepper. Too busy giving myself a big old pat on the back for the cheese addition, I failed to notice the part that said "season with salt and pepper." But do not despair dear readers, I shook some salt and pepper on my plate and was pleased to discover this mac was tasty. Adding extra Cheddar was a good call as it gave this mac some Bada Bing. The pumpkin didn’t overpower the dish but I speculate it was responsible for creating a less creamy texture then one might desire. There was a little sweetness which contrasted with the sharpness of the Cheddar quite nicely. I would have preferred a creamier texture but overall this dish was solid and extremely hearty. Stuffed to the point of unbuttoning my pants after one bowl, I had to take the dog for a very long walk to get my circulation going again.

Never one to take my own opinion as law (I blame mom for this), I dropped off a portion to The Humboldt Fog to get her two cents. Her review was less than glowing. Overall, she found it too bland even after adding salt and pepper. "It wasn't cheesy enough," she said and, surprised to learn I had used three quarters of a pound of cheese, remarked, "It didn't taste like it." She also thought the noodles were a little mushy but suggested that could have been caused by reheating.

I do agree the cheese should have been more prominent but at the same time, this recipe is called Pumpkin Mac and Cheese. Perhaps the idea is to put a different spin on what we've come to expect of this classic dish. If it tasted just like regular mac and cheese what would be the point of adding the pumpkin? Food for thought. That's all I'm saying.

Open for some debate, but this recipe might qualify as a “healthy version.” The milk was low fat and the butter used to grease the pan and moisten the crumbs negligible.  Meanwhile, I hear pumpkin is a Superfood with its potassium, magnesium and fiber.  Of course don’t take my word for it -- fact checking isn't my strong suit either.

Pumpkin Mac & Cheese

Steamed pumpkin – about 1 pound – You can also roast the pumpkin, which gives it a more robust flavor. I used pumpkin from a can.
1 pound elbow macaroni
2 cups 1 percent low fat milk
4 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar, grated (about 1 1/3 cups) - *I used 8 ounces
4 ounces blend of melting cheeses – Mozzarella, Asiago, Fontina, etc.
1/2 cup part-skim Ricotta cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

2. Steam the pumpkin in a pot with just an inch of water. Season with salt. After it is cooked, puree in a food processor.
3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta.
4. Meanwhile, start building the cheese sauce. In a pot under medium heat, mix together the milk, blend and melt the cheeses, mix the mustard, and pureed pumpkin. Season with salt and pepper. Make sure the pot is big enough to accommodate the sauce and the pasta when it’s cooked.
5. Add the macaroni to boiling water seasoned with salt and cook until tender but firm.
6. Drain cooked pasta and transfer to the pot with the cheese sauce. Mix well.
7. Transfer to a buttered baking dish. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and some extra cheese blend (if you have it) all over the top. Or – Combine one cup and a half of panko bread crumbs, 1 tablespoon of melted butter and 1 tablespoon of Parmesan, and use that to top your mac instead.
8. Bake for 20 minutes, and then broil for 3 minutes so the top is crisp and nicely browned. Everything is already cooked; you’re just heating everything together and browning the cheese on top. Caution - when I put it under the broiler it nearly burned. I'd recommend only putting it in there for 30 seconds to one minute.


Anonymous said...

A terrific mac & cheese with seasonal flavors! I'm hosting a round-up for mac & cheese make-over on Nov. 2. Let me know if you would like to participate -

AikoVenus said...

The "ghetto crepe blobs" made me giggle. I understand what you mean - but I'm getting better with making much prettier food. ^^