Monday, July 18, 2011

Macaroni and Cheeze

Of all the things that I have cooked I have never had as much trouble perfecting something as I have had with Macaroni and Cheeze.  I'm not talking about that damn blue box either.  Macaroni and Cheeze is ubiquitous, its everywhere.  It seems that it would be easy to master if it is so popular.  I have found that there are subtle nuances to making the Mornay sauce, which is the Cheeze part of Macaroni and Cheeze.

Maybe we should take a couple of steps back first.  Before you can make the Mornay Sauce, you have to make a Bechemel Sauce.  And, before you make a Bechemel Sauce you have to make a Roux.  Yes, the Crux of Macaroni and Cheeze is a Roux.  Seems pretty simple, right, flour and butter in equal parts, in this case 1 tablespoon of each.  This is a non-stick skillet over 35% power, 1/3 full.
This is so simple, how could it get screwed up?  Believe me, there is a delicate art to making a Bechemel Sauce.  When you don't know the subtle nuances, there are many things that can happen.  Bechemel Sauce is a Mother Sauce.  It gets turned into all kinds of other things, like Country Gravy, a staple in Texas.  So, any using the right tools is paramount.  The tool of choice here is a small whisk.
The whisk is the tool of choice because of the physical properties of the wires.  When these wires move through a liquid they create vortexes.  The pressure drop on the trailing edge of the wires causes a condition known as cavitation.  In certain situations cavitation is bad, like when it happens to the propeller on a boat, the cavitating water literally breaks the steel propeller.  The pressure drop from the cavitation is stronger than the atomic forces that hold the steel propeller together.  When making a Roux, cavitation is good.  The pressure drop causes the flour and liquified butter to slam together.  This does two things, it separates the flour granules, and coats them with butter.  This is the key to a Roux, the flour and butter need to be mixed very thoroughly, and every granule of flour needs to be coated completely with the butter.
The Roux needs to cook for a minute or two.  Take this time to heat a cup of milk in the microwave.  I use 2% milkfat, but you could use anything from cream to skim milk.  I heat the milk until it is about 180 degrees Fahrenheit, scalding hot, not boiling.  This is when the Roux becomes a Bechemel Sauce.  First give the Roux some Black Pepper, and a pinch of Sea Salt.  Then add the milk slowly, whisking constantly.  As the Roux starts to accept the milk it will become pasty.  Keep adding the milk and whisking.  As the Roux becomes more hydrated it will start to thin out.  Stop adding milk when the mixture seems too thin.  As the Bechemel cooks it will tighten up, you may need to add more milk if it seems too tight.  This is one of the subtle nuances, you kind of have to feel it out.  Once you feel the sauce is the right consistency reduce the heat to low and prepare for Cheeze.
For this particular batch of Macaroni and Cheeze I am using a mixture of Sharp White Cheddar, and Sharp Yellow Cheddar.  But you can use many other cheezes.  If you added Queso Quesadilla then this Mornay could become Queso Dip.  If you added Parmesan and Romano with some Fettuccine then you would have Creamy Fettuccine Alfredo.  If you were to add Gruyere and no pasta this could be a Fondue.  You could leave out the Cheeze and serve the Bechemel with some breakfast sausage bits over biscuits, for Biscuits and Country Gravy.  Bechemel is a very versatile sauce.  So, back to the Cheeze, I don't usually measure the Cheeze.  I add Cheeze until the Mornay has the necessary Cheezyness.  I do this with taste and appearance.  The Mornay Sauce will develop a stringyness, and you should be able to taste the Cheeze prominently.  Adjust the seasoning at this point.  I like Red Chile in my Macaroni and Cheeze, but then again, I like Red Chile on everything.
Typically Macaroni and Cheeze is made with plain old elbow pasta.  I don't have anything against elbow pasta, I use it a lot.  But, this time I am using Quinoa Spaghetti.  I have been using Quinoa Pasta a lot lately, but you can substitute many different pastas.  Some people put Bechemel in their Lasagne, why not add some Parmesan Romano Mornay Sauce instead?  Or you can use other foods like vegetables, use the Mornay Sauce as a creamy topping for steamed Broccoli and Cauliflower.  Mornay Sauce is also snack food.  Instead of adding pasta, saute some diced Jalapenos, Onions, and Tomatoes, and make some Nacho Cheeze Dip, one of my favorites.  In this case I am serving with thick piece of Artisan Sourdough which has been griddled and a cup of Bolita Beans.
Once I got the Roux figured out I still had a lot of experimenting to do.  I had problems with too much seasoning.  Too salty and too spicy do not make a good Mornay.  Mornay Sauce stands pretty good on its own, and doesn't need a lot of seasoning.  Don't put Habaneros in the Mornay Sauce.  I like them, but everyone else says WTF is this?  I'm pretty much not allowed to use Chile in anything for family consumption.  That's OK, more for me...

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