I always distrust blanket generalizations, but do not hesitate to say this: Everybody loves macaroni and cheese. The odd contrarian non-fan or restricted-diet-adherent aside, it’s a nearly universal dish. Indeed, Stephanie Stiavetti and Garrett McCord, authors of the new book “Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese (Little, Brown and Company, $30) make this point—pasta and cheese even appears in the cuisine of Tibet. Closer to home, McCord, who grew up in Mission Viejo, returns to O.C. Nov. 3 for a “Melt” signing and talk at Vin Goat, the cheese shop in Corona del Mar. Read details of that event here, where you’ll be able to buy the book (or bring a previously purchased copy for signing), and taste dishes made from its recipes.
While many cooks have a favorite preparation for this ultimate comfort food, a cursory flip through “Melt” reveals several candidates with the potential to give Ye Old Standby the night off. More important than inspiring variations, though, are the building blocks the authors outline for great mac ‘n’ cheese. Not surprisingly, they begin with cheese—the full panoply of fine artisan specimens, including those from California. Look for thoughtful notes on which pastas work best, and even a quick breadcrumb primer. This sort of attention warms the cockles of my heart. There’s something noble in the quest to redeem a dish too often relegated to a boxed mix.
And “Melt” is way outside the box. The book has a dessert section, for instance, with cottage cheese-laced sweet potato-noodle kugel, and a conchiligle dish with nectarines and impossibly rich cow-goat-sheep La Tur. An “Always Refreshing” chapter offers combinations you might not have considered for pasta salad, like radicchio, mango, and mozzarella, or one with cheddar and Fuyu persimmon.
For me, the purposeful selection of a single cheese makes a change—I love to make macaroni and cheese using up all the ends of good, though disparate, cheeses kicking around in my fridge. A secret hope I harbor for this book is the return to white sauce, the simple butter-flour-milk roux-thickened mixture that should be in every cook’s repertoire. Many of these recipes call for it, and Stiavetti and McCord lay it out in logical steps. (Call it béchamel or besciamella if you must, but plain-English white sauce was how the unimpeachable, multi-lingual author Richard Olney referred to it, which is good enough for me.)
That said, the recipe below doesn’t call for white sauce at all, but an entire wheel of Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk, a semisoft triple-cream with an irresistible tang, plus a mere pint of heavy cream. Wisps of prosciutto and a garnish of raspberry jam (which I happen to have in my pantry) seal the deal. The touch of sweet reminded me of how my husband’s family always serves cranberry sauce with mac ‘n’ cheese. Nobody remembers how that got started in family tradition, but clearly, they’re not alone.
You can tell how rich this is just by reading, so try not to swoon. I think filling eight smaller ramekins rather than the four indicated, and serving it as a very elegant dinner-party starter would almost guarantee your popularity reaching heretofore unseen heights. Call ahead for availability, but I turned up Red Hawk at O.C. Whole Foods, Surfas and the Cheese Shop at the Mix in Costa Mesa, The Cellar in San Clemente, and Provisions in Orange.
Red Hawk Macaroni With Prosciutto and Raspberry Jam From ‘Melt’
8 ounces elbow macaroni
1 full wheel Red Hawk, rind left intact, chopped into chunks
4 thin slices prosciutto, chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups heavy cream
4 tablespoons raspberry jam, or to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.Cook pasta in large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain and set aside.
In large bowl, mix pasta, cheese, and prosciutto. Sprinkle with salt and several grinds of black pepper. Toss until well combined.
Lightly oil 4 8-ounce ramekins and fill with equal amounts of pasta mixture. Add scant ½ cup heavy cream to each ramekin.
Line rimmed baking sheet with foil and place ramekins on sheet. Bake 35 minutes, until cream has thickened and cheese bubbles over edge of ramekins. Remove from oven and allow to sit 10 minutes. Top each ramekin with 1 tablespoon raspberry jam before serving.