Wednesday, April 14, 2010

New Orleans Macaroni and Cheese on a Mission

By Katherine Wensleydale

I’d only been on the ground in New Orleans a few hours when I found myself at Café Reconcile, eating some of the best macaroni and cheese I’d had in quite a while. Full disclosure: Most of the time at home, I’m cooking mac & cheese from that old blue box. My homemade macaroni and cheese has been greeted mostly with disdain – and sometimes full-on disgust – by my twin seven-year-old daughters. That being said, I do know good macaroni and cheese, or at least I have a vague recollection of what it’s like. This is good stuff:

I don’t know why, but spaghetti shows up a lot in Southern mac & cheese. It makes for a slightly more challenging eating experience, since the noodles have to be wrangled a bit. It’s still comfort food, no question, but it’s no longer spoon-friendly nursery-food.

The noodles in their creamy sauce somehow manage to hang on to their al dente-ness enough to not dissolve into mush. The sauce has a fair amount of depth for something based on grocery-store Cheddar, Parmesan and a big brick o’ Velveeta (more on that depth later). But let’s face it, this ain’t no high-end mac & cheese. It also lacks a crunchy bread crumb topping, something I think this rendition doesn’t need, thanks to the cheesy crust it develops in the oven. But if no crumb topping is a dealbreaker for you, you could always crumb it up.

Even though Suzy Gruyere missed out on this dish, she can still enjoy it at home: I was able to get the recipe, and this past Sunday night I tried it out before watching Treme. But first, let me tell you a little bit about Café Reconcile itself.

You’d need a heart of stone not to love the idea behind this nonprofit organization-cum-soul-food-lunch-spot, housed in a five-story building in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood, which had fallen into disrepair and poverty. Café Reconcile runs an intensive 15-week training program that gives at-risk young adults the hands-on training and skills they need to succeed in the restaurant industry. The 70-seat café is usually packed at lunchtime, and is the linchpin of Reconcile’s goal to bring economic activity back to the once-bustling area.

The organization is in the process of expanding to the lot next door, which will allow them to increase enrollment and add a banquet hall, family learning services, a business accelerator center, and an institute for social innovation, where Reconcile will train groups looking to replicate Café Reconcile’s model in other communities across the country. I’m certain the world would be a better and more delicious place with more Café Reconciles in it.

Speaking of delicious, here’s the recipe. First, a close-up of the finished product, with that nice cheesy crust:

Café Reconcile’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese

1/2 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
3/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1/2 lb. spaghetti
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
3 cups milk
1 whole bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
12 oz. Velveeta or processed American cheese, diced into small cubes
1 teaspoon Creole seasoning (you can use Emeril’s Original Essence or another spicy seasoned salt)
white pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine Cheddar and Parmesan cheeses in one bowl. Reserve 1/2 cup of the combined cheeses and set aside to use as topping.

In a large pot of boiling, salted water cook the pasta to al dente and drain.

While pasta is cooking, melt butter in separate large pot. Whisk in flour and stir over low heat for 3 minutes. Make sure it’s free of lumps.

I actually set a timer to make sure I cooked this roux for a full three minutes. I have a tendency to undercook roux, probably because I’m afraid of burning it. Three minutes resulted in a lovely, nutty roux that I think is one of the secrets of this recipe.

Stir in milk, bay leaf and nutmeg. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently, and remove bay leaf.

Stir in the combined Cheddar and Parmesan cheeses, along with 9 oz. of the Velveeta, stirring until cheese is melted. Add Creole seasoning and a pinch of white pepper.

Fold the spaghetti into the cheese sauce, then pour into a 2 quart casserole dish. Distribute remaining shredded cheese blend and diced Velveeta on top of pasta mixture.

Here’s what my macaroni & cheese looked like before going into the oven. I think you could easily put even more cheese on top if you’re a fan of a super-cheesy crust on your mac.

Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

This is easily enough to serve eight people as a side dish. Or with a veggie or salad on the side, it’s a meal for six.

Café Reconcile
1631 Oretha C. Haley Boulevard
New Orleans, LA 70113-1310
(504) 568-1157


Catherine said...

I'm a big mac and cheese fan! Will give this a try soon!
Wonderful pictures too!