Tuesday, May 10, 2011

My New French Baking Dish

My new Pillivuyt oval baking dish has seen a lot of action since it arrived last month. I've used it for roasted chickens, casseroles, and, tonight's macaroni and cheese. It's deeper than my previous baking dish, which is fortunate because I like to make a ton of mac and cheese for the two of us.

Excessive amount of mac and cheese

I rarely follow recipes exactly; this one, cut from some magazine long ago, demands serious improvisation (or intervention) because it calls for 8 ounces of pasta to 18 ounces of cheese. This would not result in mac and cheese that you'd recognize. You would get something more like cheese fondue with macaroni lurking in the depths. I use a pound of pasta instead, and a little less cheese (although I still fill a good-sized bowl with a shocking amount), and those proportions are just right. I also top it with a layer of panko breadcrumbs and run it under the broiler because crunchy topping is an essential part of the mac-cheese experience. And sometimes I add ham, or tiny pearl tomatoes, or both. I go heavier on the salt (I think sea salt makes a nice difference) and nutmeg and much lighter on the ground pepper.

I can see that there wouldn't be much point in giving you the recipe because I don't come close to following it anymore. If you want my version, which relies on instinct as much as measuring cups and spoons, just say the word, somebody, and I'll attempt to write it down here.

Why don't I find some other, more reliable recipe? — you may ask. I happen to like this one despite its troubles. Not all mac-and-cheese recipes start with making a roux — melted butter whisked with flour until it's the right shade of gold — and I can't imagine making mac and cheese any other way. The next step is to whisk in scalded milk, so I'm now making Béchamel sauce, although my butter isn't clarified (I can't be bothered). And adding the shredded cheese turns it into Mornay sauce (especially if I use Gruyère and cheddar, a traditional combo). So I'm making three classical French recipes for one all-American, low-rent dish. It's fun. (It also fills the sink with dirty dishes, but who cares?)

Tonight's variation was a winner. I used nitrate-free ham, and a lot of very aged Gouda, bought weeks ago from Harry's Cheese Shop at the Haymarket. I also shredded more than a half-pound of mild Wisconsin cheddar from Trader Joe's. I've always been suspicious of mild cheddar and orange-colored cheddar, and this is both. But I was in the mood to experiment, and it turns out to be ideal for mac and cheese. The color softens to a beautiful gold when you stir it into the Béchamel, the texture is extra creamy, and its flavor didn't overpower the Gouda. Cheese was freely oozing out of the penne, which is just what you want.

It's what I want, anyway. And it's a good thing, because I made enough for three more meals.


  1. Oh! The wonderful new dish - what's IN the dish - your description - I'm drooling.

    Confession: nutmeg in Mac & Cheese is a novel idea to me. Could you give me a general idea about how much gets to the optimal flavor? I've always had a heavy hand with the pepper mill.

    Now that I've gone over to the gluten free zone, what do you think about using rice or riced sweet potatoes - or maybe rice noodles?

  2. Hi there, aek! Great to hear from you, as ever,

    My printed recipe calls for 1/8 tsp black pepper, 1/8 tsp cayenne, and 1/8 tsp nutmeg. I do several liberal grindings of black pepper but nothing close to 1/8 tsp. I skip the cayenne. But since you love pepper, you're cleared to go wild. I usually use two very large pinches of nutmeg from a jar, probably an 1/8 tsp or more. Freshly ground would be much more flavorful in that quantity (but I'm usually too lazy to pull out my crappy little grater). I've been enjoying my fancy French sea salt so much that I overdo it, so that's what I taste, mostly.

    Unfortunately, I don't know anything about gluten substitutes but I think you'd get the best results with a firm noodle to stand up to all that cheese. Or how about steamed cauliflower?

    I'm also not sure how you'd make the roux because it calls for white flour. Would rice flour work instead? Intriguing.... good luck!

  3. I thought I remembered a gluten-free mac & Cheese over on Serious Eats. Here's a link to it.

    It even had the way to much cheese comment so it might work.

    Another addition that I'm adding to so many dishes now is Aleppo Pepper. It's a sweet, hot, lemony, mild pepper.

  4. Thanks so much, Penny and APB! Cauliflower! That's perfect, and I think that I would be much more likely to be able to have fun with this dish. (I'm going to check out the Serious Eats recipe, too) I'm going to try the nutmeg AND the cayenne AND the Aleppo Pepper! I may use ramekins and make lots of little dishes a la theme and variations.


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