Wednesday, 7 March 2012

martha stewart's [truffled] crack and cheese

reheated leftovers - martha's crack and cheese
béchamel; that perfect marriage of scalded milk thickened with a roux. the addition of a scant pinch of nutmeg, cayenne pepper, sea salt and a generous grind of coarse black pepper give it some warmth. a trio of cheeses – gruyère, mature cheddar and pecorino romano transform it into a cheese sauce. it helps to coarsely grate the cheeses beforehand so that they dissolve easily in the béchamel. my sister-in-law’s stirred it in batches. truffles have a natural alchemy with cheese and cream and so i finished the cheese béchamel with a couple of drops of black truffle oil. that combined with the aroma of flour toasted in butter and pungent cheeses was an olfactory explosion.

with the béchamel out of the way i buttered a square le crueset and pre-heated the oven to a hundred and ninety degrees celsius. i also sliced a fresh ploughman’s loaf into medium slices doing away with the crusts and then dicing it into little squares. they were a sponge for the melted butter that i tossed them in. the heat of the oven would toast them providing a contrasting texture against the soft luxury of the mac and cheese.

now it was time to parboil the macaroni. use good quality pasta (i use de cecco’s chifferi rigati) cooking it until very al dente as it will finish cooking in the oven. rinse it immediately in cold water. this culinary blasphemy is necessary to check the cooking process and getting rid of the extra starch. american mac and cheese can quite afford the luxury of disobeying italian pasta rules, because as martha explains the extra starch makes the sauce too ‘mealy’.

gently fold the macaroni into the cheese béchamel after which it is ready to be placed in the le creuset. blanket it with a generous layer of finely grated pecorino, finishing with the stylized breadcrumbs. then place it in the oven for thirty minutes. i used the time to get a head start on the dish washing. martha should probably rename this recipe as ‘triple pan mac and cheese’ but it’s worth the effort. fortunately it’s not the soak intensive kind of washing especially since my sister-in-laws had licked the béchamel pan clean, like one would do cake batter. the mac and cheese is ready when the bread cubes have turned a couple of shades deeper and the bubbled edges of the cheese béchamel runs a rim of caramel colour at the edges of the dish. carefully remove it from the oven and let it sit for a couple of minutes.

plate the mac and cheese making sure that the crisp bread sits on the surface. i find that the little bit of resting time allows the cheese to regain a little solidity so that it clings to the curves of the macaroni. this really is the ultimate mac and cheese. in fact, it’s nickname of crack and cheese is much more accurate. the time in the oven allows the sauce to find its way into the hollows of the macaroni. the moisture in the sauce does away with the residual rawness leading to an al dente macaroni. i just about managed to finish what was on my plate. my sister-in-laws managed seconds. i really should have put together a fresh green salad with some arugula as an anti-dote to the buttery luxuriousness but i forgot to buy salad in the rush to figure dessert.

the geometry of macaroni
i knew that the sister-in-laws would like something sweet to end the meal, but that it would have to be something refreshing after all that butter and cheese. i could of course have made a simple fruit salad, something with the tartness of winterberries or bright notes of citrus. but i was in a creative mood and tried out a roasted grape compote. this was inspired by grape foccacia that mama would get from galileo bread emporium in scottsdale for weekend brunches. the focaccia was rolled to the thickness of pizza, it’s surface marked with roasted grapes. as the foccacio baked, the heat of the oven drew the moisture from the grapes intensifying their sweetness. i figured a naturally sweetened compote of roasted grapes layered with a sharp greek yoghurt would be the perfect end to our dinner.

to make the roasted grape compote i washed a punnet of red grapes making sure to remove all the stems. the individual grapes were placed in a greased roasting pan and put into an oven at hundred and eighty degrees for twenty minutes. after twenty minutes i introduced the juice and zest of a navel orange to deglaze the sugars at the base of the roasting tin. at this point you want to return the tray to the oven checking it frequently. you want the juice to reduce to the consistency of a syrup. remove it from the oven when it comes to that point. once cool, layer it with greek yoghurt into little glasses. we all really enjoyed it. i’ll definitely be making it again and this time i’ll fold it into crème fraiche to make a roasted grape fool with a little bit of orange blossom water.  

mac and cheese, fresh from the oven
martha’s crack and cheese
adapted from her recipe on her website

3 slices good-quality white bread, crusts removed, cut into small dice
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for dish
2 and 3/4 cups milk
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon maldon sea-salt
a scant pinch of grated nutmeg
a generous grind of coarsely ground black pepper
a scant pinch of cayenne pepper
1 and a ½ cups of grated mature cheddar
1 cup grated gruyère
1 cup grated pecorino romano
250 grams elbow macaroni

heat the oven to 190˚c. butter a 23cm casserole dish large enough to hold the macaroni and cheese ; set aside. place bread pieces in a medium bowl. melt a tablespoon of butter in the microwave. pour butter into the bowl with bread, and toss. set the breadcrumbs aside. in a medium saucepan set over medium heat, heat milk. melt remaining 3 tablespoons butter in a high-sided skillet/pan over medium heat. when butter bubbles, add flour. cook, stirring, 1 minute.

slowly pour hot milk into the roux flour while whisking. continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick.

remove the pan from the heat. stir in salt, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper and the grated cheeses reserving half a cup of the pecorino romano. set cheese sauce aside.

fill a large saucepan with water. bring to a boil. add macaroni; cook 2 to 3 fewer minutes than manufacturer's directions, until outside of pasta is cooked and inside is underdone. (different brands of macaroni cook at different rates; be sure to read the instructions.) transfer the macaroni to a colander, rinse under cold running water, and drain well. stir macaroni into the reserved cheese sauce.

pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish. sprinkle remaining pecorino romano; scatter breadcrumbs over the top. bake until browned on top, about 30 minutes. transfer dish to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes; serve.

martha stewart's recipe on her website is prefaced by notes on her perfect macaroni and cheese which are really helpful. smitten kitchen's martha's macaroni-and-cheese is a visual treat and i completely agree with her that this mac and cheese reheats beautifully. the crack and cheese reference comes from a note on martha stewart's recipe in the new york time's diner's journal. lastly, credit goes to the geometry of pasta for the macaroni illustration. 


  1. sounds so delicious. i love that recipe. hope your sisters-in-law enjoyed the whole meal- made w. love. x s

  2. i think they did. and i finally got our my remaining fear of making bechamel. i always panic that it will become lumpy but it was silky smooth!