Chic comfort

inspired by her mother's recipe, creates a creamy mac and cheese studded with ham and covered with a Gruyère crust and sourdough bread crumbs.
inspired by her mother's recipe, creates a creamy mac and cheese studded with ham and covered with a Gruyère crust and sourdough bread crumbs.

Homey mac and cheese goes haute as creative chefs in the region experiment with exotic ingredients.

Posted: January 22, 2009

Jason Cichonski is only 24 years old, so perhaps it is no surprise that a microwaved bowl of Kraft "Easy Mac" (with a side of cut-up hot dogs) is still his favorite after-work meal.

It's what Cichonski does with macaroni and cheese at his day job - as chef de cuisine of Lacroix at the Rittenhouse - that might be a little startling to comfort-food purists. And I'm not even talking about the decadent orzo macaroni with house-smoked salmon, rosemary-steeped brie cream, and brown butter panko bread crumbs that has been one of Lacroix's biggest lunch hits.

How about the molecular gastro-mac that Cichonski's crew pulled off for a recent wine dinner? Using silicone tube molds and a quick-set jelling agent called Kappa, they transformed a rich sauce of triple-cream Brillat-Savarin into springy noodle-shaped tubes - in essence, the cheese became the macaroni - served alongside scallop sashimi with caper-miso broth.

OK. Not everyone may be ready to cozy up to this sci-fi rendition of classic American comfort. But Cichonski is working the cutting edge of a much wider trend that has cooks all across the region embracing new possibilities for macaroni and cheese.

The phenomenon has been simmering for a decade, ever since the French Laundry's Thomas Keller published his iconic recipe for haute "macaroni and cheese," rarefied with butter-poached lobster, mascarpone orzo, Parmesan crisps and coral oil. But the movement to reinvent this inexpensive, homey indulgence has only intensified as the country has entered its economic downturn, and kitchens watch food costs more closely than ever.

Few dishes are able to both trigger warm childhood memories in diners and offer chefs such a blank canvas for culinary creativity. Kitchens are now adding everything from seafood to chile-spiced noodles to unconventional binders made from squash. The pasta shapes themselves have been a subject of variation, ranging from simple elbows to triangle-shaped tubes and tiny beads of Israeli couscous.

And every French bistro in town, it seems, is now suddenly broiling sides of macaroni "gratin." One Northern Liberties restaurant, Swallow, recently converted itself into an entirely "mac and cheese bistro," with mix-and-match blend-ins ranging from gyro meat to gorgonzola. Cajun Kate's in the Boothwyn Farmers Market even gives its tall wedges of crab- and tasso-ham-spiced macaroni the ultimate Louisiana flourish: a crisp in the deep-fryer.

"Macaroni dude!" bellowed a pair of wide-bellied bikers standing in line behind me at Kate's, calling in their regular order with two thumbs up.

Philadelphia's soul-food restaurants, of course, have long kept the steam tables warm beneath pans of Southern-style mac 'n' cheese, recipes rich with eggs and cheese that usually skip the roux. Delilah's macaroni is certainly the most famous, given national notoriety by Oprah, but the baked macaroni at lesser-known Deborah's Kitchen at 26th and Girard is my soul-food favorite.

Far more creative energy, though, is currently being spent upgrading the traditional béchamel-bound versions of the casserole with better ingredients and refined technique. It's a task being undertaken most heartily by the city's new French bistros, from Parc to Bistrot La Minette. It's only fitting, since Philadelphians were among the first in the young nation to taste mac 'n' cheese, when, in 1802, a French chef named Louis Fresnaye distributed a recipe for "vermicelli baked like pudding" to the colonials.

"It's food for babies in France," said Eric Ripert, the New York-based French chef behind 10 Arts at the Ritz-Carlton, whose creamy, ham-studded macaroni is my absolute favorite of the new lot.

The recipe was actually refined by 10 Arts' chef de cuisine Jennifer Carroll, 34, a Northeast native who was inspired by the macaroni her mother, Joan, still bakes annually for her birthday.

It is a series of tiny professional-chef touches, though, that elevate Jennifer's rendition to near perfection. The dustlike consistency of her sourdough bread crumbs lends the Gruyère crust a most delicate and golden micro-crisp. A judicious last-minute thinning of the béchamel gives the sauce an almost milky flow. Pushing the ham through a grinder, instead of merely mincing, helps the meat fluff the casserole instead of weigh it down.

As with many seemingly simple dishes, attention to details and balance makes the difference. Choosing the cheese is only the most obvious variable - creamy Jack or sharp cheddars and Gruyère? Chefs have also conjured distinctive recipes by swapping other key elements, often with the upgrade of hard-to-find ingredients.

At Talula's Table in Kennett Square, for example, Bryan Sikora and Aimee Olexy coax maximum flavor from the béchamel, infusing it with herbs, garlic and Dijon mustard. But it is the addictively earthy spice of a rare imported penne made from Italian peperoncino chile peppers that makes this casserole worth the drive. That key ingredient, made by Dalla Costa, is impossible to find locally beyond Talula's market shelves, so you'll have to visit, even if you want to make it yourself. (In a pinch, a dash of fresh chili powder can stand in.)

At Sovana Bistro, also in Kennett Square, it is the diminutive shape of the pasta that allows chef Nick Farrell to transform the homey flavors of the dish into a decidedly elegant garnish. The beadlike pearls of Israeli couscous, enriched with a flourless fondue of fontina, Gruyère and Parmesan, emphasize the textures of seasonal ingredients - local mushrooms and diced butternut squash - beneath a crisply roasted breast of chicken.

Seasonality is highlighted even more vividly at Cooper's Brick Oven Wine Bar in Manayunk, where pureed butternut squash, sturdy pasta, ricotta, and mozzarella cheese are the essential ingredients. By replacing the roux-based béchamel entirely with pureed squash as a binder, chef Bruce Cooper also maximizes his ability to assemble the casserole at the last minute from components prepped well ahead of time (low-gluten squash, he said, unlike béchamel, won't thicken further in the fridge.)

For summer, Cooper is already planning to replace the squash with corn. Or perhaps a mac 'n' cheese with stewed tomatoes.

"It's simple, people just get it and share," said chef Cooper. "And we sell a good amount of it."

It's a far cry from the boxed macaronis and powdered cheese sauces of our past, but not quite the experimental "gastro mac" of our future, either.

The only foreseeable problem with the macaroni resurgence is that chefs come to like their new versions too much.

Young chef Cichonski had to stop serving his addictive salmon macaroni and cheese for awhile to save him from himself.

"I literally ate it every day for lunch for two months," he said.

By popular demand, however, that salmon mac is back.


10 Arts Macaroni, Ham and Cheese

Makes 2 to 4 servings

2 cups of cooked elbow macaroni

1 cup of grated Gruyère cheese

1 cup of ground Boar's Head ham (if you do not have a grinder, chop ham to a fine dice)

1 1/2 cups of béchamel (see below)

Milk as needed

1 cup of sourdough bread crumbs (See note)

Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

For the Béchamel:

1/4 cup unsalted butter

1/4 cup all purpose flour

1 quart (4 cups) of milk

A pinch of nutmeg

Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Make a white roux by melting the butter and adding flour. Gradually add the milk to the pan, whisking away any lumps. Bring the sauce to a full boil; reduce to a simmer, stirring frequently. Simmer until sauce is smooth and flour is cooked out (about 20 minutes). Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

3. Warm the béchamel. Add half of the Gruyère. Remove immediately from the heat. The cheese should just lightly melt into the béchamel.

4. Add the cooked macaroni and ham to the béchamel cheese mixture. The consistency should be fairly loose but not soupy. Add milk if needed to loosen. Season to taste with fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

5. Place mixture in a casserole. Top with the rest of the Gruyère cheese and the bread crumbs.

6. Place in oven until the cheese is bubbly and crisp (about 4 to 6 minutes). Do not overcook. It should still be quite moist. Serve immediately.

Note: For the bread crumbs, use day-old sourdough bread slices and let them dry out. Grind in processor or crush in a zippered bag until super-fine. Pass through a fine-mesh tami (sieve) so the bread crumbs are like dust.

Per serving (based on 4): 623 calories, 33 grams protein, 45 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams sugar, 34 grams fat, 114 milligrams cholesterol, 773 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Cooper's Brick Oven Wine Bar Butternut Squash Mac & Cheese

Makes 8 to 10 servings

1/2 medium butternut squash

6 tablespoons butter, melted

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

2. Remove seeds from squash half and brush it with half of the melted butter on flesh side. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

3. Mix remaining butter with thyme leaves and set aside.

4. Place squash skin side up and cover with foil. Bake in oven for 45 minutes or until easily penetrated with a knife. Remove squash from skin and puree flesh in food processor until smooth. Lower oven temperature to 350 degrees.

5. Combine milk and cream and heat just until boiling. Fold the squash puree into milk and whisk. Add the cheddar cheese and mascarpone and heat until melted. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

6. Cook the pasta according to the manufacturer's instructions and drain.

7. Spray a 2-quart Pyrex baking dish with vegetable oil. Place fresh mozzarella and ricotta cheese in bottom of dish. Toss the pasta with the cooked cheese sauce and spread evenly in dish. Bake in 350-degree oven until the cheese sauce is bubbling, about 20 minutes. Spread bread-crumb mixture over top and finish baking until bread crumbs are golden brown, about five minutes.

- From chef Bruce Cooper of Jake's Restaurant and Cooper's Brick Oven Wine BarNote: If you are preparing this in advance, you can cool the sauce and cooked macaroni, stored separately, for up to 2 days. Baking time should be increased to about 40 minutes.

Per serving (based on 10): 509 calories, 19 grams protein, 41 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 30 grams fat, 98 milligrams cholesterol, 327 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Smoked Salmon Mac 'n' Cheese From Lacroix at the Rittenhouse (Home Version)

Makes 8 servings

4 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons flour

2 cups whole milk

2 cups heavy cream

2 thyme sprigs

2 rosemary sprigs

4 ounces cream cheese cut into small cubes

5 ounces Brie cheese cut into small cubes

6 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated (another good Swiss or Cheddar will work, too)

1 pound cooked orzo pasta

3 cups cleaned baby spinach

1. For the sauce: Melt the butter in a medium-sized pot (3-4 quarts) over low heat. Add the flour, turn the heat up to medium, and whisk until the flour and butter begin to turn a light gold color and have a faint nutty smell. Slowly add the milk in a steady stream, whisking the whole time to incorporate the roux and liquid without any lumps. Add the cream and drop in the herbs. Bring the liquid up to a strong simmer and cook for about five minutes, being careful not to scorch the bottom. Remove the pot from the heat and whisk in all three cheeses in the order listed. Once all the cheese has fully incorporated, drain through a fine-mesh sieve, or remove the thyme and rosemary stems with a fork. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

2. For the bread-crumb topping, in a medium-sized sauté pan, over medium heat, melt and brown the butter. When the butter becomes a light brown, add the garlic and shallots and sweat until translucent. Add the bread crumbs and toss until they are all evenly coated. Continue to toast lightly in the pan until they become crisp and golden brown. Toss with the remaining ingredients and transfer to a plate or tray lined with paper towels to cool.

3. Heat the cheese sauce in a pot until just above room temperature and add the cooked orzo. Continue to heat until the whole pot is hot but be careful not to bring to a boil. If the sauce seems too thick, add a little milk. When the mac 'n' cheese is hot, stir in the spinach and cook one minute, or until wilted, then fold in the salmon. Season with salt and pepper and spoon into serving bowls. Top each bowl with some of the bread-crumb topping and garnish with the chopped sun-dried tomatoes.

Note: If you don't have the time, equipment or patience to smoke your own salmon, pick up a package at the grocery store. Be sure to choose a package that is cold-smoked rather than hot; there is a huge difference in texture and flavor.

Per serving: 834 calories, 30 grams protein, 57 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 55 grams fat, 182 milligrams cholesterol, 1,025 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.


Talula's Slightly Spicy Macaroni and Cheese

Makes 6 to 8 servings

5 cups milk

½ large yellow onion, chopped, about 1 cup

2 garlic cloves, smashed with the flat side of a knife, skin left on

4 sprigs each of parsley, oregano or marjoram, thyme

2 to 3 fresh sage leaves

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper

½ pound Dalla Costa peperoncino penne (see note)

2 cups aged white cheddar and Gruyère mix cheese  (Cabot, Grafton, Roth Käse), grated

2/3 cup good-quality grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup Garlic Bread Crumbs (see note)

1. Combine the milk, onion, garlic, and herb sprigs and leaves in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a simmer. Cook over medium-low heat for 15 minutes. Set aside to steep for 15 minutes. Pour through a strainer and return to the pan.

2. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk in the flour to make the roux, and cook over medium-low heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Slowly whisk 2 cups of the seasoned milk into the roux to make a paste. Add the remaining milk, 1 cup at a time, until all the milk has been incorporated. Continue to cool - still whisking - over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes. The sauce will be just slightly thickened. Season with the Dijon, ¼ teaspoon salt, and a pinch of pepper.

3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 2-quart baking dish.

4. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt lightly. Drop in the penne and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes. (It should be slightly undercooked to allow for baking time.) Drain the penne and place in a large bowl. Pour the sauce over and toss in the cheeses (reserve a handful of Parmesan). Season to taste with salt and pepper.

5. Pour the mixture into the baking dish, making sure to include all of the sauce. Sprinkle with the garlic bread crumbs and remaining Parmesan and bake until golden and bubbling, about 40 minutes.

Note: As an alternative to the peperoncino penne, use regular penne and 1/4 teaspoon chili powder whisked into the roux with milk.

To make the bread crumbs, preheat the oven to 325. Cut day-old sourdough bread into thin slices and place on a baking sheet; brush with garlic infused oil. Bake until golden and very crisp, about 15 minutes. Allow to cool. Break up the bread with your hands and pulse in a food processor, leaving the texture a little coarse.

Per serving (based on 8): 408 calories, 20 grams protein, 36 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, 59 milligrams cholesterol, 425 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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