By Hilary Havarti
If I had $10 for every time someone asked, "Don't you ever get sick of macaroni and cheese?," I'd have at least $50 by now. I need to start charging people to talk to me. Now that's an innovative business idea! The answer is squarely, "NO." I never get sick of macaroni and cheese. In fact, if I don't have it for a couple of weeks, I crave it. So in actuality, I'm probably addicted to mac and cheese and somebody might think to stage an intervention. But I'll warn you meddling interventionists, I won't go gently. There will be struggle and histrionics.
Experiencing serious mac "withdrawal" symptoms, I cracked open my Barefoot Contessa Family Style cookbook and decided to take a stab at her "Mac & Cheese" recipe. Now for those of you who don't know, Ina Garten has a Julia Child-esque, dream come true, success story I find inspiring. She had a boring job, crunching numbers as a budget analyst in the White House, before tossing her calculator in the garbage can to pursue her dream of opening a specialty food store. Without a cooking degree or chef experience, she purchased The Barefoot Contessa in The Hamptons in 1978 and the rest, as they say, is herstory. Yes, the shop had the name before she did so strike the image from your mind of Ina frolicking around the shop in bare feet and a crown atop her head.
The biggest innovation to this recipe was the use of tomato slices layered on top of the gooey casserole. I'd had tomatoes added to one other mac and cheese dish, I believe it was in the Hugos Three Cheese entree, and remembered enjoying the contrast of the tanginess with the creaminess.
Those familiar with Ina's work know she doesn't skimp on calories and this recipe is no exception. Requiring a stick of butter, a QUART of milk, 12 ounces of Gruyere and 8 ounces of Cheddar, it's a stretchy waist band kind of meal. She suggested spiffing up the dish by using cavatappi, a corkscrew-shaped pasta, instead of traditional elbows. I sent the old man to the store in search of said pasta and he returned with something called Galletti (more about that later.)
The recipe is pretty straightforward in terms of preparation with a few innovations. To prepare the roux she said to whisk the flour and butter in a large pot while heating the milk separately. That was weird and I didn't really understand the point but Suz explained warming the milk prevents shocking the flour/butter mixture into unruly clumps. (She's so smart!) Meanwhile, Ina cautioned, "don't boil the milk." I'm not sure if the milk ever achieved appropriate hotness as I was terrified of boiling it and ruining the whole magillah. When I added the cheese I wasn't able to achieve optimum smoothness probably because the milk wasn't hot enough. Oh well. The Cream Cheese Dream recipe lets you throw the cheese right in with the noodles without melting it into the roux first, so I wasn't sweatin' it.
The biggest surprise reaction I received was from my old man who shuns mac and cheese, if you can believe it. He's just not a big cheese fan. But something about the presentation enticed him (I credit the crispy breadcrumbs over a layer of tomatoes) and he sampled a small portion. And lo and behold, he liked it. Don't get me wrong, he stopped after a tiny portion so he won't be joining me at Mac Rehab, but he thought it was tasty, enjoyed the tomatoes but thought it needed salt. Which is nuts because the recipe calls for 1 TABLESPOON of salt. I too enjoyed this dish but it didn't blow me out of the water. It's not Martha or Cream Cheese Dream or even the New York Times recipe good. I found the nutmeg a bit overpowering and if I ever make it again, I'd use less. But it's very creamy, cheesy and rich; all the things you look for in a macaroni and cheese.
For me there is no good way to think of calamari as I do not care for the gelatinous blobs and you can see from the photo, Galletti does resemble some kind of ocean bottom feeder. However, they did the trick in terms of providing a hollowed out middle for the sauce to seek refuge.
Here's a little secret. One of the reasons I never tire of Mac and Cheese and I think Suz will agree is, sharing. Both Suz and I deliver portions of each recipe to friends, neighbors and family around town like Santa's little helpers. This way we get to poll our sample group for reactions and don't ruin our love of mac by gorging ourselves to the point of sickness like I did with marzipan when I was eight years old. But that's a story for another day.
* Kosher salt
* Vegetable oil
* 1 pound elbow macaroni or cavatappi
* 1 quart milk
* 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
* 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
* 12 ounces Gruyere, grated (4 cups)
* 8 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar, grated (2 cups)
* 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
* 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
* 3/4 pound fresh tomatoes (4 small)
* 1 1/2 cups fresh white bread crumbs (5 slices, crusts removed)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Drizzle oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add the macaroni and cook according to the directions on the package, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain well.
Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan, but don't boil it. Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large (4-quart) pot and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring with a whisk. While whisking, add the hot milk and cook for a minute or two more, until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, add the Gruyere, Cheddar, 1 tablespoon salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooked macaroni and stir well. Pour into a 3-quart baking dish.
Slice the tomatoes and arrange on top. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, combine them with the fresh bread crumbs, and sprinkle on the top. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the macaroni is browned on the top.