I try a mac and cheese recipe that's more art than Kraft.
At the end of a long day, I will often ride the train home and wonder what to do for dinner. I’ll be too tired to cook anything, but I won’t want to make a habit out of going to restaurants. Just before I resign myself to a can of soup, I will remember my stash of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.
I turn to it sparingly, not wanting to ruin the indulgence. It’s an occasional pick-me-up for emergencies, like Underdog’s Super Energy Vitamin Pill. Because frankly, a healthy person probably shouldn’t expose himself to too much of that dazzling orange powder.
(By the way, you can buy that powder separately now, in little cardboard canisters like Parmesan. I imagine you could set it on your breakfast table, to sprinkle over eggs or stir into coffee.)
I’ve always known that there were fancier versions of macaroni and cheese, but I’ve suspected they’d be way too complicated and time-consuming to bother with. When I need a hit of pasta and cheese, immediacy is a lot more important than quality.
But my friend Robin has an awesome food blog, and she recently posted a recipe for “Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese.” While in no way “instant,” the recipe didn’t look all that intimidating, and I gradually stirred up a flirtation with the idea of making it. Finally, this past weekend, I assembled the rather lengthy grocery list and headed to the store. A lot of the purchases would vanish entirely into the recipe (an entire box of macaroni! two full bricks of cheddar!), and those that wouldn’t would be good to have around. A tiny plastic tub of nutmeg, while kind of expensive, will probably last long enough to be used in the food served at the funerals of my great-great grandchildren.
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While the recipe was not difficult, it did require setting aside a good chunk of time. The squash alone has to roast for an hour: enough time to have prepared and consumed an entire box of Kraft Dinner, with a good 40 minutes left over to wallow in the throes of post-binge self-loathing.
But the real fun came from making the cheese sauce. You melt half a stick of butter, then add a half cup of flour, then trickle in two cups of milk. All those ingredients with the potential to curdle or scorch made me very nervous, but with low heat and a watchful eye I was able to transfigure them into the thick paste they were meant to be.
I’ve since learned that this is a basic sauce called a “béchamel.” Butter plus flour plus dairy plus heat. There’s something a little thrilling about seizing one of the “mother sauces” of French cuisine and ravishing it into something as base and vulgar as a big Pyrex dish of mac and cheese. Because then you add a parade of ingredients like pureed squash and Dijon mustard and cayenne pepper and great fistfuls of shredded cheddar that vanish into luxurious, velvety liquescence. You toss them with the cooked macaroni and spread everything by the acre into a large cooking dish.
This recipe makes a massive amount of macaroni and cheese. Surrounded by mounting stacks of pans, and pasta that seemed to propagate itself, I felt like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Everything was going beautifully. I sneaked a few forkfuls before making the topping to sprinkle over the macaroni, a crust that would brown and crisp on top of the noodles.
The topping is a mixture of yet more butter, yet more cheese, and one slice of bread that has been pulverized into breadcrumbs. I’m a very busy and important person, and I simply do not have the time to run a slice of bread through a food processor. So I reached for my store-bought cylinder of Italian breadcrumbs.
This was my only mistake. The fineness of the crumbs turned what should have been a crumbly substance into something more akin to acrylic sealant. I forged ahead anyway, wiping a few streaks of this cheesy glue over the macaroni and setting it in the oven for the last 20 minutes.
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It was wonderful. The sauce is very thick, heavy, and rich. The squash bestows a subtle, nutty flavor, and the mustard pricks at your sinuses. Even my misguided topping was fine, if I dug through it with a knife. And now there are three Tupperware containers full of leftovers in my freezer.
It took a ridiculous amount of scrubbing to clean all the béchamel off my pots and pans. So, from the initial grocery shopping to the last dish put away, we’re talking a significant time investment. But I’m not sure how soon I’ll be able to return to the blue boxes in my cabinet.
The Banquet of Life is a bi-weekly look at one man's life through the food he eats.