Northern California cookbook authors take mac and cheese into gourmet territory

10/16/2013 12:00 AM

10/15/2013 8:58 PM

Macaroni and cheese is one of the greatest dishes in American history. And one of the most abused.

At a certain point in our sci-fi food “evolution,” it showed up on grocery store shelves in a box. Inside, along with the dried pasta, was a sealed envelope of nuclear-orange powder masquerading as cheese. Instructions were simple. You boiled. You cooked. You stirred. And with a splash of milk and a cube of butter, you had this somewhat edible, if not incredibly salty, bowl of neon-coated pasta. If you included that in your regular diet along with instant coffee, Pop Tarts, TV dinners and Tang, you were well on your way to the inner circle of nutrition hell.

That was the mac and cheese that endured through multiple generations. And that was the mac and cheese that kept me and many others going through college. Then something happened. Restaurants, seeing the rise of casual dining during the recession, repositioned the dish as comfort food and put it on menus with new twists and high-end ingredients. It was rich and creamy and often deeply satisfying to eat. The flavors of gourmet cheese and extras such as salty bacon or pancetta made it really pop. Cookbooks found a place for it and showed us how to make a better version with real ingredients, just like folks did before it came in a box for less than $1.

All this has prepared us for “Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese” (Little, Brown, $30, 224 pages) by Stephanie Stiavetti and Garrett McCord. Yes, mac and cheese can achieve greatness, according to the authors. What’s more, it can be an incredible vehicle – a blank slate, if you will – for comforting, creative, edgy and even esoteric exploits in the home kitchen.

The mac and cheeses of “Melt” can also be mind-blowing. The recipes here range from simple to complex, ingredients from basic to extraordinary, and techniques from hands-on to all-hands-on-deck. You will not be bored. You may possibly experience madness, however, keeping tabs on all the artisan cheeses, all the cheese makers and nailing down which stores carry which cheeses. The authors assure us that these recipes are eminently doable whether you’re, say, in Mill Valley or in Macon, Ga.

If one of the authors rings a bell, it’s because McCord is a longtime Sacramento resident who began making a name for himself with a food blog, VanillaGarlic.com. McCord, who has a master’s degree in English, lives here with his husband, two cats and a corgi, and has a long list of freelance writing credits. Veteran blogger Stiavetti resides in Oakland. She is a freelance writer and recipe tester. The two became fast friends when they met at a food writing conference.

Their love for cheese and their penchant for creating recipes led them to zero in on mac and cheese as both a topic for a cookbook and a way to do new and wondrous things with ingredients. The key ingredient here is cheese, specifically artisan cheese. There’s Brigante, which the authors call “the king of Pecorinos.” There’s a Basque sheep’s milk variety called Etorki that is rich and nutty. And you’ll encounter more familiar cheeses such as Parmesan, Fontina and Brillat-Savarin. But overall, think handmade. Think small batches. And try not to think about the prices.

Yes, artisan cheese can be expensive. But the authors do a good job of arguing why you should consider artisan offerings over mass-produced cheese. The book also offers a short primer on pasta, emphasizing an awareness of freshness and encouraging the purchase of premium brands of dried pasta. While they don’t get into it in the book, making your own pasta, if you have the time and inclination, is even better.

What do you get for your money with artisan cheese? A lot of bang – flavors big, bold, subtle, sophisticated and often memorable. In other words, this book is not for cheapskates. And budget-minded home cooks will have to pace themselves rather than go all-out, all the time, with these recipes. Prices for artisan cheese range widely, depending on variety and source, but it can cost less than $10 a pound to more than $30 a pound. If you’re OK with mac and cheese that may cost as much as a new sweater, have at it. Several of the recipes are much more affordable.

Sacramento has been doing mac and cheese with aplomb for several years, at such varied restaurants as Magpie (with Brussels sprouts), The Kitchen (with lobster), Juno’s (rock shrimp) and Broderick (finished in the pan and delectably crisp around the edges). Fans of this kind of comfort food will readily buy into what’s going on in “Melt.” Sacramento is also ready and willing to celebrate artisan cheese. The success of The Rind, a new cheese bar in midtown, shows that people will flock to a place to have good cheese paired with wine and beer.

Stiavetti and McCord do many helpful and wise things at the outset of this inviting book, which is replete with color photographs for the 75-plus recipes. They tell you about cheese – how to buy it and how to store it. They note, for instance, that special cheese paper is ideal for wrapping cheese before storing, because it allows the cheese to breathe, but that more readily available parchment paper will work in a pinch.

They talk about basic equipment and techniques, stressing, for instance, that cookware with a heavy bottom is best when cooking cheese on the stove top. They also recommend the purchase of a kitchen scale. If you’re a careful baker, you already know the value of measuring ingredients by weight. They also offer ingredient options for the gluten-free crowd. And the book includes a relatively simple mornay sauce recipe (essentially a Bechamel, or basic white sauce, with the addition of cheese) that is used as a foundation for many of the macaroni-and-cheese recipes throughout the book.

In a telephone interview with the authors, they told me at one point about buying cheese. Customer service and communication are crucial.

“If they won’t let you try the cheese before you buy it, you probably should go somewhere else,” McCord said.

“The No. 1 way for people to be empowered about cheese is to start a conversation with the cheesemonger,” Stiavetti added.

In the book, the authors also offer this crucial advice: Read the recipe – the entire thing from start to finish, before you start cooking. Reading the recipe will save you headaches and, when the instructions are clear in your mind, will lead to a more enjoyable cooking experience.

One thing “Melt” doesn’t do, have mercy, is provide nutritional information with each recipe (as we do at The Bee). Doing so with mac and cheese is just plain wrong – because of the guilt you’d feel knowing the calories you were about to consume. Who needs to know, for instance, the calorie count for “Lincolnshire Poacher with Cotija, Chorizo and Penne” (Page 115) or “Pasta Fritatta with Taleggio, Mushrooms and Truffle Oil” (Page 144)?

It’s best to think of these dishes as luxuries to be experienced every so often. If you’re banking on using this book to go down a pants size, you’re going to be disappointed.

But if you are eager to buy into what the authors are getting at – that mac and cheese does not have to be blasé – “Melt” can open your mind to a new world of cheeses and a slew of excellent ideas for how to use them with skill, with gusto and, best of all, to the delight of your friends and loved ones.

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