As I watch the coverage of Winter Storm Juno out on the east coast I can't help but remember my own east coast blizzard experience two years ago. And the more time that lapses the more the story of this experience is embellished. But seriously, enduring the hardship of significant snow and brutal cold are one thing, significant snow, brutal cold, and no power are a completely different one. The incredible beauty of the snow covered landscape does not make up for the bone-chilling cold felt when the power goes out. After two days of no power, I didn't just want to take a shower, I just wanted to take the hottest shower my body would tolerate. Doesn't it always seem that when we don't have access to something, particularly those things we take for granted, our desire for it seems to disproportionately increase? We aren't thirsty for water until the well doesn't work. Suddenly our throats become parched and nothing but water will satisfy it. Guess this is life's way of reminding us the best way to appreciate something is to be without it for a while to truly appreciate its' value.
Have you often heard the saying 'there are three sides to every story: your side, the other side and the truth'? That was thought when I went on a quest to learn more about the history of macaroni and cheese. The most popular version of the origin of this American classic goes back to 1803 and is attributed to Thomas Jefferson. After dining on this dish during his travels to Italy, he brought back a pasta maker so it could be replicated and served in the White House. Years later, Jefferson's daughter, Mary Rudolph, included a macaroni with parmesan cheese recipe in her 1824 cookbook "The Virginia Housewife". The less popular version of the story has macaroni and cheese casserole dishes being served at new England church suppers in Colonial America using the recipes they had brought with them and ingredients they had available. Whether or not their recipes came from Elizabeth Raffald's book 'The Experienced English Housekeeper' (published in 1769), noodle casseroles made with cheese and topped with bread crumbs have endured over the centuries. Today the variations of this classic comfort food are limited only by one's imagination or cheese and pasta preferences.
This version of mac and cheese is made with the classic elbow macaroni noodles along along with aged gouda and some white sharp cheddar cheese. I initially started out making it with only with the aged gouda, but then decided the addition of some sharp white cheddar would add another dimension of flavor and slightly reduce the intense richness of the gouda cheese. The combination of these two cheeses worked perfectly together in this creamy macaroni and cheese casserole.
Two cups of dry elbow macaroni does not seem like it would be enough for this casserole, but it is.
To ensure your mac and cheese casserole still has enough texture to it when baked, the pasta noodles should be cooked until they are al dente or slightly underdone. Depending on the noodles you use for this casserole the cooking time will range. Most packages will give al dente times on them, but if they do not, you can always test for their doneness by tasting them. The cooked noodles are drained but not rinsed.
After making a white or béchamel sauce, the grated cheese is stirred in until the sauce is smooth and creamy. My most favorite gouda cheeses Rembrandt (one year aged) gouda. It is a deep, golden in color cow's milk cheese having flavors of butterscotch, honey, and caramel. With just the right amount of sharpness, it equally perfect for eating as well as for using in this casserole. You can find it in most stores with a large cheese department as well as at the large wholesale food stores we all have memberships to (the one's where we usually don't get out of without spending at least a hundred dollars).
While an ounce of white sharp cheddar cheese doesn't seem like much, it turned out to be the right amount. To ensure the creaminess of the mac and cheese, I added a quarter cup of heavy whipping cream after all of the cheeses had melted into the béchamel sauce. This amount of heavy whipping cream also kept the cheese/liquid balance of the cheese sauce. You could also use whole milk here.
The cooked elbow macaroni noodles are stirred into the cheese sauce and then poured into the prepared casserole dish. If your sauce does not look creamy (and it should) add just a little more whole milk or heavy whipping cream.
Some say bacon ramps up the flavor of everything it is added to. And it usually does. But for me caramelized shallots should be one of those foods ranked right up there with bacon. The added layer of flavor they add to this casserole make a significant difference to both its' taste and texture.
Baked in a pre-heated 350 degree (F) oven, the mac and cheese casserole cooks for 25-30 minutes or until the panko bread crumbs are lightly browned and the casserole is heated through. While it can be a side dish, this version may be the more perfect main dish to serve for lunch or dinner on a cold winter day. And if you have not mac and cheese in awhile, make this one. It might even be better than the one you remember.
Note: You can make the Gouda Mac and Cheese w/ Caramelized Shallots early in the day, cover and refrigerate. Let sit out at least 30 minutes before placing in the pre-heated 350 degree (F) oven.
Gouda Mac and Cheese w/ Caramelized Shallots
2 cups dry macaroni shells (or any pasta of your choice), cooked until al dente
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
8 ounces aged Gouda cheese (aged at least one year) grated (2 cups) (Recommend Rembrandt Gouda)
1 ounce grated sharp cheddar cheese, grated (or a generous 1/4 cup)
1/4 cup heavy cream (or whole milk)
salt and pepper to taste
2 large shallots, sliced thin and caramelized
3/4 cup Panko bread crumbs combined with 2-3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F). Lightly butter a medium sized oval casserole dish or individual ramekins.
2. Melt unsalted butter, add flour and whisk constantly for one minute.
3. Slowly pour in milk, whisking constantly. When all milk has been added, put heat on simmer and cook until thickened (use the back of the spoon test to check for doneness). Remove pan from heat.
4. Stir in grated cheeses. Mix until all of the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth. Stir in cream. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
5. Pour mixture into prepared pan.
6. Top macaroni and cheese with caramelized shallots and Panko bread crumbs.
7. Bake for approximately 25-30 minutes or until bubbling.
8. Serve immediately.
Capturing the morning sunlight at the Morton Arboretum and St. James Farm.