Maggie Parkinson used to specialize in low-carb cooking (more below) and she wrote Carb-Less in Seattle well before low-carb diets became the norm. We did an interview with her in 2013 (click here) when she was living in Renton, Washington. Since then, she has moved to Poulsbo (off the coast of Washington) where she and her husband have built a beautiful home with several gardens and an orchard.
Her days are filled with mowing the lawn and working in the gardens, but she has nevertheless found time to do several recipes for us, including Pizza, Saag Panir, Pear & Fig Bread, Fromage Fort, and Easy Bechamel Sauce. Every one of her unique recipes is based on years of experimenting and each one includes fun tips in her lighthearted style. We think this one for macaroni & cheese is the absolute Best in the West!
Mac & Cheese Challenge
By Maggie Parkinson of Poulsbo, Washington (AKA Carylton Cooper, author of Carb-Less in Seattle)
Is there anything more American than Mac and Cheese? Well yes-the hamburger!
But in one form or another, these dishes are eaten around the world, too; the Italians eat pasta with a cheesy sauce and the hamburger is prevalent around the world in both McDonald’s outlets and good ones!
I remember when I tooled around my home town with my boyfriend eating hamburgers – based on my standards today they were pretty awful but then I’m talking many decades ago! I am a truly old faht when it comes to my palette. (When I cared about NOT disclosing my age I used to say “I’m as old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth!)
I also remember that as a five year old I didn’t read “comics” or similar fluff-I used to spend HOURS looking through one of my Mom’s cookbooks-admittedly this one had drawings so maybe it qualified as “cartoons” after all! But I’ve always been invested in food – the creation of it as well as stuffing it in my face!
My father’s name for me (right from the age when my legs would hold me up) was FAT TUBS. Way to go Dad! It turns out that I didn’t get the metabolism module; Dad had it and bequeathed a skinny body and curls to one of my sisters-I got Mom’s fine hair and chubbiness. AS A RESULT of that, I dieted for about fifty years in one way or another.
I mostly won the battle too, especially when I donned the alter ego of Carylton Cooper, ate low-carb and wrote recipe collections based on my efforts. Those days are gone-I am now chubby and have larger clothes and am not hungry all the time. It turns out that my “no metabolism” module is not just idle fancy either-I have a thyroid that doesn’t work worth a damn and wipes me out if I get upset or animated about anything. Ho Hum-better stop getting agitated about elections!
SOOOO why all this preamble? No good reason-but I do want to alert you to the fact that I KNOW today’s recipe is NOT HEALTHY. For the above reasons I have eaten and still eat spaghetti squash with sauces and made low-carb noodles until I was blue in the face. I’m mostly past that now-I have remodeled my wardrobe, and resigned myself to a size 12. I think I am in good company size-wise as long as I don’t live in Paris – how do French women stay slim when the first stop every day is to buy a fresh baguette?
NOW I would rather eat a little of something “off the charts” yummy than a YUGE plateful of something non-descript. A case in point: true story coming up!
The PIRATE loves Mac and Cheese. But his standards are high-we used to have a local brew- pub who served something called “death by Mac and Cheese” and it was just — words fail me-heavenly is the best one that comes to mind. It was off the charts in cholesterol count and you just didn’t care when eating it!
So, recently, when we had brunch at a “big chain bakery restaurant” and he ordered “3 cheese Mac’n’Cheese,” my heart sank as I knew exactly what he was going to get: cheap macaroni and runny sauce with three imitation cheeses one of which was powdered. I was right. When the managers wandered by and asked how we were doing I was honest-they were astonished, (I almost wrote gob-smacked there) because “it is our most popular item!” I bet. But their cheeses come from HQ in bags, as I suspected.
The problem with this dish is that we were brought up on Mac and “cheese” out of a blue box! So when we go out and get something even a DEGREE better we’re happy-in other words – do we know any better?
I bet you cheese makers DO – if you’re patient enough to make your own cheese, then you’re probably not satisfied with much out of a box. It’s not just THE blue box- it’s all the other frozen boxes which we grab and put into our microwaves. But once in a while it’s a good idea to make the real thing; the downside to that can be that your standards, like mine are not downwards-adjustable. Once you get the good stuff- can you go back? My answer to that is to always eat the good stuff and NOT do it every week!
Making the good stuff doesn’t have to be a palaver! I recently bought a miniature crockpot (it holds just five cups) and made just enough M&C for the Pirate’s lunch in one step; put everything in, press the button, and walk away. He raved about it and compared it to our favorite “death” version. I would tell you more about that gadget but it sold out. Look for miniature rice cookers/rice cookers on the interweb if this idea appeals!
Getting it done: You can boil your pasta, make a sauce, mix the two and bake it up a little more with a crumby crust and more cheese on the top. (If you add a Y to the word crumb it looks like is should read crum-bee don’t you think?)
OR: As I just said you can make it in a crock pot on a walk-away basis. I like to keep more control of my pasta generally speaking.
I don’t think really that any one method is the RIGHT one! So it’s not HOW you cook it but what you put IN IT that makes it great!
I don’t know how many people you need to cook for. I am only skilled at cooking for two. (Fib – -I just cooked a wedding breakfast and served 48 plates of food!) So I hesitate to give you a SPECIFIC recipe although I WILL… you can adjust for your crowd. What I want to do is steer you onto a path to greatness and let you come up with a new way of making your own quantities given a few hints.
1) Make sure you have a base sauce for your Mac. Dry cheese and pasta is going to be jaw sticking – you want it creamy!
2) Be sure to include some chicken base in your sauce- either by using chicken stock to make your sauce or adding good quality chicken base to the sauce. Last month’s MOOSLETTER/blog shows you how to make a good béchamel in the microwave and this would be a good foundation for your finished dish. http://blog.cheesemaking.com/easy-bechamel-sauce-maggie-parkinson/
3) If you use chicken soup base adjust for salt after you’ve taste- tested first. Remember that your sauce is going to dry out a bit in the oven before you serve it so don’t make it TOO thick to start with.
4) The cheese. DON’T USE POWDER. Cheese Louise! The whole idea of Mac ‘n CHEESE is for it to taste CHEESY – -use the real thing and always look for SHARP cheeses. Our TV chefs yak on about Fontina and how lovely and melty it is-but-what’s the good of melty if it doesn’t whack your mouth up with cheese flavor? That’s just a way of eating lots of calories for nothing and wasting dollars. Make the cheese count!
If you’re buying some of your cheddar cheeses in Costco like I do for cooking look for AGED, SHARP, and VINTAGE. I am now going to be patriotic and tell you that the folk who really know how to make sharp cheese are The Canadians, (Black Diamond), The Australians and the BRITISH! (New Zealand too!) I have some CRACKER BARREL in my fridge right now and it’s good and sharp-appears that this brand is made by KRAFT, which surprises me. Oh no it doesn’t-this one won awards and I was smart to buy it!
5) I acknowledge that there are exceptions to my guiding rule above. However, I challenge you to find SHARP by Tillamook and SHARP by a British manufacturer and compare them. See! Asiago and sheep’s milk cheeses also have great flavor. Even if you are a mild cheese eater by nature (as in snacking) you should still be putting good sharp cheddar in this dish. (I am willing to admit that if you only like mild soapy cheese for eating, you might want mild soapy in M&C too. Sorry, we have very different palates!)
The really INTERESTING THING about getting really sharp cheese is that you will use way less of it. In this batch I only used a 4.4 oz piece (about) which was 1.5 cups. Generally speaking and with wimpier cheese I would typically have used almost twice that much! This saves calories and cash, buddy! Anyway this dish that I made for you and this piece was REALLY cheesy even though I used a small amount. The cheese I used is too sharp for some palates, (it’s from England), but currently available in My Costco…and yours? (You can identify it in the mis-en-place photo below.)
6) At this point I have to apologize for sounding patronizing-you are cheese makers, so you know all this, right-but just in case some lay-person reads this, I have to tell it like it is in my aged view.
7) There are simple ways you can BRING OUT the flavor of your cheese by two simple additions. I put these two ingredients in EVERYTHING that is supposed to be cheesy: dry mustard and Worcestershire sauce. (This is pronounced as if those small letters weren’t there-Wooster sauce. I laugh so much when I see the TV chefs ALL OF THEM struggle with this name.) See the trivia below. Generally speaking I’m talking about a teaspoon of mustard and a half teaspoon of the sauce.
8) Put in wine or beer- I don’t use red but you can use beer (probably not PORTER OR GUINNESS which is what the pirate likes-a lighter ale is preferred for this). A slug is all you need but it makes all the difference. I usually have a bottle of white wine at hand to use and that’s what I use most often. Make your sauce without it – taste – then add a slug and see the difference!
9) Make your base sauce and then add stuff until it tastes right to YOU! As I noted above, we’re all different and what works for me might not work for you specifically. So make your base sauce, and add the mustard wine and Worcester then start loading in grated cheese until it tastes perfect to you.
10) The whole dish is probably going to bake again before you serve it so you only have to cook it short of al dente before adding it into your bathtub of cheesy sauce.
11) As noted in my béchamel formula, I like to add richness with a hunk of cream cheese. I don’t always have cream (whipping type) but I always have cream cheese; I buy it in big blocks and use it in lots of things including tomato sauce! I am famous (well at least five people love it), for my tomato sauce! (http://blog.cheesemaking.com/making-pizza-with-maggie-parkinson/)
So I am now going to put in a recipe for something I might make-I say “might” because I don’t cook with recipes unless I am baking or making bread. I am a “throw something in this and see what happens” kind of cook-that is a result of too much practice! The only time I follow/develop a recipe is when I am preparing this drivel! Often I come up with new concoctions just because I don’t want to waste anything! (I am Queen Maggie of Leftovers, sometimes with “THIS IS A KEEPER results!)
Sample recipe incorporating all the above:
Ingredients: For your average batch of sauce assemble:
2 T cornstarch
2 T butter
12 oz (1.5 cups) of whole milk or half and half ( I used the latter as I don’t buy milk)
1 tsp chicken soup base (or salt)**
Pinch of pepper
2 oz cream cheese (Optional)
¾ t of dry mustard powder
½ t Worcestershire sauce
1.5 cups of sharp cheddar cheese
2 T dry white wine
Note that for this dish I do not use nutmeg even though I have my clever nutmeg mill in the mise-en-place photo-I decided that it was not required for this dish.
There ARE two cups of fluid in my measuring jug-I’m developing here- I only used 12 oz and saved the rest.
To finish the dish, the optional topping:
3 handfuls of Italian breadcrumbs
2-3 handfuls of parmesan cheese.
(I often use spirals, rotini, or pasta other than macaroni but I’m being a purist today. I do think the larger macaroni is more fun that the teeny weeny stuff though!)
3 cups of elbow macaroni
You can see from my photo that I use Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw wine-I am a foodaholic who knows NOTHING about wine and don’t care to. This stuff is so inexpensive that I have my own little wine store just for cooking. I use a vacuum sealer to preserve it between uses and never waste a drop. No I do not take slugs when cooking-honest!
The two little covered dishes contain grab-and-go salt and pepper.
Ok-using my no-lump béchamel method described in a previous blog, (except that this time I am starting with the cream cheese) here’s how you assemble all this lusciousness!
If you don’t want to use the cream cheese just begin by dissolving the cornstarch in a little of the milk. Always do this by putting a little fluid onto the cornstarch-if you add the starch to a few oz of milk it’s harder to mix it smoothly!)
Begin by putting plenty of well-salted water into a pot-enough to hold your macaroni when it has swelled up and cooked. Bring the water to a boil.
Next put your cream cheese in a microwave (M-wave) safe vessel, put it in the M-wave and process it for 2 minutes on low power. Take it out and stir and repeat this step until your cream cheese is velvety smooth.
Next, take your cornstarch and blend it into the cheese once again, stirring away until it is completely incorporated.
Now you should add a few tablespoons full of your milk and stir again. Now would be a good time to incorporate your chicken soup base too-while the cream cheese is warm to help blend it in easily.
Now you can blend in ALL of the rest of the milk until everything is smooth and then -add the butter and put it back in the M-wave and cook for three minutes on medium power-MEDIUM! 50%! This is not a race! STIR. Do that two or three more times and your sauce will look like this! Hopefully you won’t be making the mess that I was. (I believe that if you don’t make a mess when cooking, you aren’t doing it right. Some people feel the same about-oh well, never mind!)
Take it out and stir in the white wine, Worcester sauce, pepper and mustard. I tasted mine and even without cheese it tasted damn good to me. It’s still too early to check salt levels as your cheese has tons of saltiness too!
Once your water is boiling, add the macaroni. I did not cook this in advance of my sauce-I didn’t want the distraction of monitoring the pasta while doing the multi-process steps for the sauce. I cooked my macaroni for 8-9 minutes-test at 8 -you might like it to be very al dente?
While the macaroni is boiling, grate and add the cheese to your sauce- -it’s hot enough to melt the cheese immediately but warm through again the M-wave if not. Taste… now’s the time to add a bit of salt if needed.
Once your macaroni is soft enough, mix it with the sauce and put it into a serving dish or casserole. I put mine into an 8″ square dish which is perfect for this quantity.
You can now make this wait for you or finish and eat it.
I added three handfuls of breadcrumbs and some parmesan on top and simply broiled it until the top was crispy. We like crispy toppings on casseroles.
If you make this in advance, it is creamy enough to hold up to another trip to the oven.
This amount made four good-sized servings. Remember I said that I’d rather eat a small amount of something divine than a giant batch of something blah! You might eat more… lucky metabolistic you!
I added some of my little tomatoes from the garden-for no reason other than they taste so marvelous!
If your Mac is better than this, please send me the recipe!
I’m still buying cheese: I’ve almost finished the building of my new home/B&B in POULSBO Washington and I hope to get back to making cheese in the fall. After I get done weeding and feeding 1.5 acres of lawn and digging up over 100 dahlia tubers!
There are a ton of places in the UK with CESTER AND CESTERSHIRE in their names.
In the main they are silent and not pronounced.
Leicester is pronounced Lester.
Gloucestershire is pronounced Glostershire or Gloster.
The term cester is an evolution from CASTRA which is the name of a Roman camp – those Romans stayed in the UK for a long time and left their nomenclature for us all to trip over for centuries to come!
The locals don’t grumble because they don’t live here! Check out the name of this village in Wales …
You cannot pronounce this without phlegm!
HEY! Thanks for reading!