Posts Tagged 'Perfect Macaroni and Cheese'

Dinner Party Menus: Perfect Macaroni and Cheese

I spend a ridiculous amount of time on food.  Between searching recipes, reading food magazines, planning menus, shopping, cooking, and cleaning it all up, food is certainly a central element in my life.  (My husband and I keep joking about all the things I could accomplish if I gave up cooking for just one week…  Stay tuned to see if that ever actually happens!)

It occurred to me today that I might be able to save time for some of you by posting the menus I’ve put together for dinner parties at my house.  I try to plan things that go together nicely and that will allow me to do as much work as possible before my guests arrive.  (We usually have cocktails and apps around my kitchen island, so the last thing I want my guests to see is me frantically trying to put a meal on the table.)  Saving time and lessening stress is always a good thing, right?

Last night, Dr. O and I hosted a typical fall dinner party with one exception: we had a vegetarian guest.  Now, vegetarians certainly aren’t unusual and I’ve worked with more challenging diets, but I came to realize that I didn’t have many recipes in my entertaining arsenal that didn’t include meat.  I first experimented with Hearty Root Vegetable and Mushroom Stew from my copy of The Best of America’s Test Kitchen 2010.  While it certainly wasn’t bad, it wasn’t dinner party food; my friend Christopher suggested that I was expecting a miracle out of a vegetable stew.  After some discussion, we came up with the menu below for six guests.

Spinach dip and lemon artichoke dip from Whole Foods (I’ll take help where I can get it!)
Cucumber slices (as a dipping alternative)
Mixed olives
Roasted, salted almonds (from Whole Foods bulk section – fantastic!)

Perfect Macaroni and Cheese
Green Beans with Caramelized Shallots
Simple Roasted Tomatoes (Just toss any quantity of cherry tomatoes in a roasting pan with olive oil, salt, and pepper; roast for 15 to 20 minutes towards the end of the macaroni and cheese baking time.)

Pear and Berry Crisp

Here’s the preparation schedule I followed for a 7 p.m. dinner party.  (Yes, I am one of those people.  Having a schedule totally reduces stress and the likelihood that I’ll forget something, though.)

Anytime Friday:
Chill wine
Wash and iron napkins
Make and store crisp topping

Saturday morning or afternoon (work takes approximately 1 hour):
Slice and store shallots for green beans (refrigerator)
Rinse, trim, and store green beans (refrigerator)
Wash and dry cherry tomatoes, place them in roasting pan, and store (counter)
Wash, slice, and store cucumbers (refrigerator)
Thaw berries for crisp
Wash and slice pears for crisp
Assemble fruit portion of crisp and store (refrigerator)
Set table

5:45 p.m.: Make macaroni and cheese (hold at room temperature until baking time)

6:30 p.m.:
Put out appetizers
Put pot of water for green beans on stove (no heat yet)
Put pot for cooking shallots on stove with shallot butter inside (no heat yet)
Preheat oven for macaroni and cheese

7:00 p.m.: Guests arrive!

7:15 p.m.:
Put macaroni and cheese in oven
Start boiling bean water

7:30 p.m.:
Put tomatoes in oven (beneath macaroni)
Start cooking shallots

7:45 p.m.:
Remove macaroni from oven
Add green beans to boiling water

7:50 p.m.:
Remove tomatoes from oven
Drain green beans and toss with butter, salt, and pepper
Combine green beans with caramelized shallots
Change oven temperature to 400°F for crisp
Serve dinner

8:30 p.m.: Put crisp in oven

9:15 p.m.: Remove crisp from oven

9:35 p.m.: Serve warm crisp with vanilla ice cream

It seems like a lot of steps, but since I did things like put the bean water and shallot butter on the stove ahead of time, I’d say the actual amount of hands-on work that needs to be done while guests are standing around takes fewer than 10 minutes. Consequently, I can actually interact with and enjoy my guests (the point) instead of working myself into a frenzy (so not the point!).

The food turned out really well.  I’ve made Perfect Macaroni and Cheese (here’s a link to my post) and Pear and Berry Crisp (my post) before; both are absolutely to die for.  The tomatoes and the green beans were perfect complements to the macaroni.  I would normally serve a buttery chardonnay (like La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay) with this dinner, but my friend brought a red (2005 La Baronne Alaric) with the dish in mind; it paired beautifully.

So that’s my dinner party…  What do you think?  Do you consider this type of post helpful, or not so much?  I’d love to hear from you!

Perfect Macaroni and Cheese

Despite all of the moving chaos still present in my life, I’ve decided that today is the day I take a giant step back towards normalcy.  I cooked my own breakfast (no more Starbucks and cold cereal!), I’m hitting the gym, and I’m firing up this blog.  I haven’t started cooking full-on meals again just yet (thank you, Christopher, for green enchie leftovers) , but I have a few good stories to share from the past couple of weeks.  Let’s start with one of those now…

I’m a macaroni and cheese FIEND.  I’m too well-behaved (from a nutritional standpoint, at least) to eat it all the time, but it’s truly one of my favorite foods.  I even have a cookbook that is dedicated entirely to macaroni and cheese (thank you, Colleen!).

Several weeks ago, my friend Christopher had friends over for a meatloaf dinner with macaroni and cheese on the side.  He said the macaroni and cheese recipe – Perfect Macaroni and Cheese from the February 1999 issue of Martha Stewart Living – was to die for, so I picked up the ingredients.  This was about the time that moving chaos really started to set in, though, so I was struggling to stick with my scheduled menus.  In a comical turn of events, we actually ended up at my place one Sunday finishing up a baking project that we had started at Christopher’s place.  Dinnertime rolled around and I had the Perfect Macaroni and Cheese ingredients (and little else) in the refrigerator, so we decided to make it together while the cakes we had been baking were cooling.

The original recipe serves 12 people, so I had purchased ingredients for a half recipe.  First, we buttered a 1 1/2-quart casserole dish and set it aside.  Next, we took 3 slices of white bread, removed the crusts, and tore them into 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch pieces.  We placed the bread in a small bowl, poured 1 tablespoon of melted butter over the top, tossed the mixture, and set it aside as well.

To make the cheese sauce, we started by heating 2 3/4 cups of milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  While the milk heated, we made the roux that would become the sauce’s thickening agent.  In a high-sided skillet, we melted 3 tablespoons of butter, added 1/4 cup of flour when the butter began to bubble, and cooked the mixture (stirring constantly) for 1 minute.

Whisking constantly, we slowly poured the hot milk into the flour mixture.  The next line of the recipe says, “Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick.”  It probably should have said “continue cooking, and cooking, and cooking, and cooking…”  The process of thickening this sauce really did take forever.  It’s a good thing I had Christopher there to cheer me on as I whisked, because I would have stopped long before the sauce had reached an optimal thickness.

When the sauce was nice and thick, we removed it from the heat and added 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, 1/8 teaspoon of grated nutmeg, 1/8 teaspoon of ground black pepper, 1/8 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, 1 1/2 cups of grated sharp white cheddar, and 3/4 cup of grated Gruyere.  We stirred the sauce until it was well blended and set it aside.

Cooking the macaroni was the last step before we could assemble the casserole.  In a large saucepan of boiling water, we cooked 8 ounces of elbow macaroni until the outside of the pasta was cooked and the inside was underdone.  (Normally, this would be about 2 – 3 fewer minutes than the package instructions; at this altitude, it’s more like the exact recommended cooking time or 1 fewer minute.)  When the pasta was adequately cooked, we rinsed it under cold water, drained it well, and stirred it into the reserved cheese sauce.

Finally, we poured the noodles and cheese sauce into our prepared casserole dish.  We sprinkled the mixture with 3/4 cup of shredded sharp white cheddar and 1/4 cup of shredded Gruyere, scattered the buttered breadcrumbs on top, and baked the casserole at 375F until it was browned on top (about 30 minutes).  We let the dish cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes and served it with rotisserie chicken from the grocery store and green beans from the freezer.  There’s nothing wrong with dressing up a gorgeous dish with a few convenience items in a tight situation, eh? 🙂

Perfect Macaroni and Cheese

This macaroni and cheese was *really* delicious.  Truly.  It was creamy, nicely textured, and the breadcrumbs on top were killer.  I couldn’t count it as “perfect,” though, because I’ve been ridiculously spoiled by the macaroni and cheese at The Porch in Dallas, which I consider to be the standard by which all other macaroni and cheese should be judged.  There was something in the flavor profile of the cheeses I used that didn’t quite do it for me, but like anything, a dish is only as good as the ingredients you put into it.  Next time, I think I’m going to try the Pecorino-Romano variation given in the original recipe to see if that yields a flavor that is closer to what I want.  I’ll definitely give this one another shot, though.

TIPS:  I failed to plan ahead in the milk department, so I only had 1% milk on hand when it was time to make the roux.  For maximum creaminess, I should have used whole milk (and will next time).

Also, be sure to plan on grating your own sharp white cheddar and Gruyere, unless you have access to a (probably gourmet) grocery store that sells them pre-shredded.

Recipe link: Perfect Macaroni and Cheese

The Daring Kitchen

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