While we were waiting for our carrot cake to cool, we thought it might be good to make a bit of dinner. What? Carrot cake doesn’t make a well-balanced dinner? Of course it does, it’s full of vegetables (carrots), fruits (raisins), nuts, and dairy (cream cheese in the frosting), but there’s that thing about the 1 1/2 cups of oil and the two cups sugar…. So, maybe it would be better to have a little dinner first. Naturally, to counteract the bad parts of the carrot cake, we went with that all American classic, Mac ‘n’ Cheese. We happened to be inspired by a French cookbook we were perusing. Truly.
In Rachel Khoo’s book, The Little Paris Kitchen, we happened to spot a recipe that looked just wonderful. No, it wasn’t Mushroom Mac ‘n’ Cheese, but we aren’t going to tell you what it was, either, at least not until we make it. But, we didn’t have everything it called for (Hint: we were missing Reblochon cheese — you too?). Drat! A few pages past that recipe, she did have a Mac ‘n’ Cheese recipe. So, we thought, why not? We have everything we need for that (It doesn’t absolutely need Reblochon cheese, some other cheese will work). Now, we’re not sure it’s even fair to say that this recipe is based on hers, but, we did incorporate some of her techniques and ingredients (the bay leaf, clove, and nutmeg, plus letting the bechamel cool somewhat before adding the cheese). So, if you try this Mushroom Mac ‘n’ Cheese and like it, it’s probably because of those additions. If you don’t, just let us know how it could be improved. Meanwhile, let’s get scratchin’.
First, the cheese: use something you like, but use a strong cheese, or a mix that includes a strong-flavored cheese. We went with a Colby-Jack for melty-ness, but added Grana Padano (Parmesan) for a lot of flavor. Once cheese bakes, it will lose some of its flavor. That’s also why we included strong-tasting mushrooms: shitake and porcini, to maximize the flavor while hot. Second, we almost always use elbow macaroni. It’s traditional. And, for dried pasta, we only use the Barilla brand. We like it best for texture and taste, simple as that.
Procedure in detail:
Rehydrate mushrooms. We simply place the dried mushrooms in a heat-proof bowl and cover them with about a cup of boiling water. Let sit on the counter for about an hour, then drain. We never, I mean never, discard the mushroom broth. There are just too many good places to use it. Soup, risotto, gravy, and so on. Saving mushroom broth is a credo of true scratchers. Finally, chop the rehydrated mushrooms into pieces. A kitchen shears works well, but a knife wouldn’t fail, either.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Steep milk. Measure out the milk and add the bay leaf, the clove, and the pinch of nutmeg. We want these to steep just a bit to infuse the milk with flavor. It’s easy enough, and, if it makes for a better dish, who wouldn’t?
Boil pasta. We like to boil our pasta so that it’s just the tiniest bit undercooked, because we know it’ll cook more while it’s in the oven, and at the end we’ll have a perfectly done pasta. We really don’t like it when the elbows end up soft. Eww. But, if you’re making this, make it the way you want. Once boiled, drain, rinse, and let sit in the colander.
Make bechamel. We’ve heard it called Mornay sauce too, but, either way, we’re going to make a roux for thickening, then add milk. So, using the same pan you boiled the pasta in (why clean two pans?), melt the butter over medium heat until it’s foamy. Remove from heat and stir in flour until you have a smooth paste. Let sit for 2 minutes to cool slightly. Finally, add the milk in three additions, stirring or whisking to make a smooth sauce.
Add mushrooms. Return the sauce to the heat, add the mushrooms, and simmer (reduce heat as needed) until thickened. Simmer, stirring often, about 10 minutes to eliminate the raw flour taste. Season with salt and pepper. Remove bay leaf and clove. Actually, if we see the clove anytime we’re stirring, we remove it — it’s hard to find sometimes.
Add cheese. No, don’t add it right away. Apparently, if you add cheese when the sauce is too hot, the cheese will separate and you’ll have an oily, clumpy mass that will look disgusting (if that happens, it’s sometimes possible to save it by adding a small amount of lemon juice). So, remove the sauce from the heat and wait about 5 minutes, until the sauce is no longer hot, but still fairly warm, then stir in the cheese.
Add macaroni. It wouldn’t be mac ‘n’ cheese without the mac. Stir in the pasta until it is well- coated, and then scoop into a casserole dish. Top with the reserved cheese and bread crumbs, and cover. We decided to make ours in individual casserole dishes. It makes a nice presentation and helps with portion control.
Bake. Bake covered for about 30 minutes, or until bubbly. Remove the cover and bake for 10-15 minutes more, or until the topping is browned and crispy.
Serve and enjoy. Using individual casseroles also make it easy to serve. Just place one in front of each diner. It looks more upscale, even though he or she is technically eating out of a cooking pan.
This Mushroom Mac ‘n’ Cheese turned out creamy, and we think that the tips on the bechamel sauce really helped, since in the past we’ve had cheese sauces that were a bit grainy. We also liked the idea of infusing the milk with a few spices — we use that technique for Potatoes Gratin, so why not here, too? But, we do think of Mac ‘n’ Cheese as one of those dishes that evolves and changes over time. We generally only follow the basic idea, changing the cheese or mushrooms at will, so we’ve never settled on a standard recipe to use over and over. We really think that would be boring, and, in some sense, just as bad as always having Mac ‘n’ Cheese from the dreaded blue box. So, while we give this four stars, take it, or the best parts of it, as a starting place in you adventure of scratchin’ up your own Mac ‘n’ Cheese. We surely will.