Everyone likes macaroni and cheese, right? It seems to be the very definition of comfort food, always perfect for those days when you just want to relax and enjoy eating without a care in the world. To us, we just can’t imagine that macaroni and cheese could be improved. But, that lack of imagination shows why we aren’t world famous chefs like Thomas Keller. He’s taken macaroni and cheese to the next level.
Over the years, we’ve tried a number of recipes by Thomas Keller, and almost all have been exceptional: the best of the best, so to speak. These are recipes that you’ll make time and again, and will break out whenever you want food that will make people swoon. So, we wondered, “what would Thomas Keller do with something as simple and homespun as macaroni and cheese?”
A quick search of the Internet revealed an answer (he also has a macaroni gratin recipe out there that we want to try) on the Honest Cooking site, and now it’s available to all Scratchin’ It fans. We will tell you that we hadn’t planned this dinner in advance, so we lacked a few things, but we substituted appropriately. We’ll describe the substitutions below.
We’ve never had Panko bread crumbs in the house. We generally just make our own, and that’s what we used here. We debated about going through the trouble of toasting the bread crumbs and are so glad we did. It makes a difference. For the finely minced onion, we knew it should be very finely minced, and our knife skills do not match those of Chef Keller. We used a microplane. The original recipe specified crème fraîche, and, normally, we’d have made its equivalent, homemade sour cream, but didn’t have time. Finally, no chives or flat-leaved parsley, but we do have a few bunching onions growing so we snipped off a bit of the green leaves, and we used dried chervil in place of the parsley.
Oh, the stock: the original recipe called for low-sodium chicken stock, but we used our homemade vegetable stock in its place.
Procedure in detail:
Toast bread crumbs. Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium-low heat. When foamy, about a minute or two, add the bread crumbs and start stirring. Continue cooking and stirring until the crumbs turn a nice golden brown. Too long and you’ll burn the bread, so watch them. Immediately transfer to a bowl to stop the toasting and allow them to cool. Set aside until ready to serve.
Toast orzo. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. When hot, add the orzo and toast, stirring often, until about half of the orzo is golden brown. This should take about 2-3 minutes, and the pasta should smell toasty. Remove from heat.
Add onion. Stir in the onion. At first it’ll spatter and steam, so be careful. Continue stirring off the heat until no more steam is released and any liquid released by the onions is absorbed, less than a minute.
Add broth. Stir in 3/4 cup of broth and return the pan to medium heat. If you’ve made risotto, you’ll know what to do. Start stirring and continue stirring until the stock is almost completely absorbed. Not so long that the orzo sticks, but long enough that when you drag a spoon through the orzo, it doesn’t fill in with liquid.
Add more broth. Just as in making risotto, add another 3/4 cup of broth, along with a pinch of salt, and repeat the stirring and cooking until almost all liquid is absorbed. At this time the pasta will still be underdone; not to worry, though, you’re not finished stirring, either.
Add milk. Stir in the milk, and, just as with the stock, continue cooking and stirring until the sauce is thick and creamy. At this time the orzo should be perfectly cooked. Soft on the outside with a slightly firm center. If not, you can add another 1/4 cup of stock and continue cooking to your liking. Don’t let the pasta get mushy, because no one likes mushy pasta. Remove from heat.
Add crème fraîche and cheese. If you’re using butter, stir it in. Stirring in butter is often done with risotto to thicken the sauce slightly to make for a smoother mouth feel. We didn’t use butter this time, but, perhaps we will next time. Once the butter melts, stir in the crème fraîche, 1 1/2 cups of cheese, and the herbs. If needed, pop a cover on the pan for 5 minutes to help melt the cheese and stir again until smooth and creamy.
Taste and adjust. Taste, and, if needed, add more cheese and a bit of salt. Add a bit more stock if you need to loosen up the sauce to make it creamy.
Serve. Scoop into bowls or ramekins — we used soup plates, just as we’d use for risotto — and top with the toasted bread crumbs. They’ll warm perfectly while you bring the dishes to the table.
Wow! This is even better than mac ‘n’ cheese! Really. It’s creamy, cheesy, nice and flavorful, with a toasted crumb topping that makes it seem as if it were finished under the broiler. We really liked the way the orzo, when cooked in the manner of risotto, makes such a creamy sauce. Using the stock and toasting the pasta makes for a more complex flavor, so it’s not as if all you’re tasting is cheese (a common failing in some mac ‘n’ cheese), and it’s really easy to make, possibly even easier than the baked version. Five stars, without reservations.