MODERN MACARONI AND CHEESE (U.S.)
The subject says it all: Tired of fancy-schmancy holiday cuisine, my wife demanded meatless "roots" cookery tonight, specifically, a sizzling pot of macaroni and cheese like her mother used to make.
I wasn't quite ready for that -- Velveeta isn't allowed in this household -- but with the help of a good piece on mac'n'chee in the current (Feb 1997) "Cooks Illustrated" plus a quick de-briefing as to what Mary's mom used to put in the family specialty; a few homeopathic doses of "interesting" cheeses, spice and garlic; and a little free-ranging improvisation, I came up with a dinner that fully passed muster -- close enough to the old-fashioned original to please her, yet creative and complex enough to please me.
It was easy, too ... always an advantage.
Using the large-hole side of a four-sided grater, grate a total of about six ounces of cheeses. I used primarily mild cheddar (probably 80 percent of the total) in order to maintain the gentle, mellow-yellow quality of the original, but grated in smaller rations of Gruyere (15 percent), Provolone and Pecorino Romano (just a skosh each) to add complexity and flavor interest.
In a small bowl, mix 1/2 cup whole milk, one egg, 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard (dissolved first in a little water), a dash of hot-pepper sauce, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and dashes of freshly grated nutmeg and black pepper.
Boil a large pot of salted water and cook 4 ounces (1 cup) elbow macaroni for about 6 minutes, until it's nearly al dente but still a bit undercooked. Resist the temptation to go with your conchiglie or ziti or penne -- to emulate the real thing, it's got to be elbows or nuthin'.
Drain the pasta and put it back into the same pot with 1 tablespoon butter. Toss until the butter has melted and mixed with the pasta. Over medium-low heat, stir in the milk and egg mixture, then about two-thirds of the cheese. Stir until it's bubbly and the cheese has melted; add another 1/4 cup milk and all but about 1/4 cup of the remaining cheese. When this cheese melts, turn the whole pot into an oven-proof casserole that you've rubbed all over inside with smashed garlic cloves. Scatter the remaining cheese on top, and pop it into a preheated 350F oven for 30 minutes, or until it's bubbling throughout and crusty-brown on top. (If it doesn't get brown enough, run it under the broiler for a minute or two before serving -- it's not real "roots" mac'n'chee unless it's got good brown crunchy bits on top.
I'd normally choose a green salad with this dish, but to complete the "roots" element, we went with green beans again, relatively long-simmered (20 minutes) with garlic and tossed with butter, salt and pepper before serving.
I thought about a buttery Chardonnay as a wine match, thinking it might make a nice foil for the dairy flavors, but ended up with a rough-and-ready Italian red instead, a Rosso di Montepulciano. Good choice! Hearty country reds hit the spot with cheese.