Northern California cookbook authors take mac and cheese into gourmet territory

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, 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.


Mac and cheese in a pumpkin? Yes! Find that and two other recipes on Page D2.

Pumpkin stuffed with Fontina, Italian sausage and macaroni

Serves 4

Recipe from “Melt” by Stephanie Siavetti and Garrett McCord.


1 sugar pumpkin, or other sweet variety (not a carving pumpkin), about 5 pounds

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 pound mild Italian pork sausage

4 ounces elbow macaroni

5 ounces Fontina, cut into 1/4-inch cubes

2 ounces Gruyère, cut into 1/4-inch cubes

3 scallions, diced

1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage

1 cup heavy cream


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut a circle from the top of the pumpkin at a 45-degree angle, the way you would cut open a pumpkin to make a jack-o’-lantern, and set aside. Scoop out the seeds and strings as best you can. Generously salt and pepper the inside of the pumpkin, pop the top back on it, place it on a rimmed baking dish (since the pumpkin may leak or weep a bit), and bake for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. If the sausages are in their casings, remove the meat and discard the casings. Crumble the sausage meat into small chunks and cook until lightly browned. Remove the sausage from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool. Discard the drippings, or save for gravy or what have you.

Also while the pumpkin bakes, cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain through a colander and rinse with cool water to stop the cooking process.

In a bowl, toss together the Fontina, Gruyère, sausage, pasta, scallions, and herbs. Once the pumpkin is done baking, take it out of the oven and fill it with the macaroni and cheese. Pour the cream over the filling. Place the top back on the pumpkin and bake for 1 hour, taking the top off for the last 15 minutes so the cheese on top of the filling can properly brown. If the top cream still seems a bit too wobbly and liquid, give it another 10 minutes in the oven. The cream may bubble over a bit, which is fine. If the pumpkin splits while baking, as occasionally happens, be thankful you set it in a rimmed baking dish and continue to bake as normal.

Allow the pumpkin to rest for 10 minutes before serving. Be careful moving the dish, as the pumpkin may be fragile. You can serve this dish two ways: Cut it into sections and serve them, or just scoop out the insides with scrapings of the pumpkin flesh for each serving. Either way is just dandy. Salt and pepper to taste.

Alternative cheeses: Fontina and Gruyère are widely available and are best used for this recipe, but feel free to try your favorite cheese. We particularly like Valley Ford’s Estero Gold or its Highway 1 Fontina, as well as Roth Käse’s MezzaLuna Fontina. If you want to try something radical, a creamy blue cheese such as Buttermilk Blue or Cambozola will do nicely, too.

Wine pairings: white Rhône Valley blends, Viognier, oaky Chardonnay, champagne

Additional pairings for the cheese: apples, toasted walnuts, toasted hazelnuts

Red Hawk macaroni with prosciutto and raspberry jam

Serves 4

Recipe from “Melt” by Stephanie Siavetti and Garrett McCord.


8 ounces uncooked elbow macaroni

1 full wheel Red Hawk, rind intact, chopped into chunks

4 thin slices prosciutto, chopped

1 teaspoon sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 cups heavy cream

4 tablespoons raspberry jam (plus more per your



Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cook pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain through a colander and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix pasta, cheese and prosciutto. Sprinkle with salt and a few good turns of the pepper grinder. Toss until well combined.

Lightly oil four 8-ounce ramekins and fill them with equal amounts of the pasta, cheese, and prosciutto mixture. Add a scant 1/2 cup of cream to each ramekin.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and place your ramekins onto the sheet. Slide into oven and bake for 35 minutes, or until the cream has thickened into a nice gratin. Remove from oven and allow to sit for 10 minutes. The cheese is supposed to bubble over the edges of the ramekins – that’s part of the charm of this dish. And it’s why you lined the baking sheet with foil.

Top each ramekin with 1 tablespoon raspberry jam before serving. Add more spoonfuls of jammy goodness if you see fit.

Alternative cheeses: Époisses, Langres

Wine pairings: domestic Pinot Noir, sparkling rosé, champagne

Additional pairings for the cheese: honey, panforte, dried apricots

Gruyère and Emmentaler macaroni with ham and cubed sourdough

Serves 4

Recipe from “Melt” by Stephanie Siavetti and Garrett McCord.


10 ounces elbow macaroni

2 cups whole milk

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

10 ounces Gruyère, shredded

8 ounces Emmentaler, shredded

8 ounces Black Forest ham, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

2 cups sourdough bread cubes, each about 1/2-inch square, crust on


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter an 8-by-8-inch baking dish.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain through a colander and set aside.

To prepare the mornay sauce, heat the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat. As soon as the milk starts to steam and tiny bubbles form around the edges of the pan, turn off the heat. Place the butter in a medium saucepan and melt over medium flame. Add the flour and stir with a flat-edge wooden paddle just until the roux begins to take on a light brown color, scraping the bottom to prevent burning, about 3 minutes. Slowly add the milk and stir constantly until the sauce thickens enough to evenly coat the back of a spoon – a finger drawn along the back of the spoon should leave a clear swath. Remove from heat and stir in salt and pepper. Add mustard and cheese to sauce, stirring until completely melted.

Pour pasta into greased baking dish and toss with ham. Pour the cheese sauce over the top of the pasta and stir gently to incorporate into the ham and noodles. Top liberally with bread cubes, slide into the oven, and bake for 30 minutes. Let sit 10 minutes before serving.

Alternative cheeses: Any reputable Gruyère and Emmentaler will go well in this recipe. Ask your local cheesemonger.

Wine pairings: Viognier, Altesse, Roussanne, Pinot Noir, dry rosé

Additional pairings for the cheese: toasted walnuts, bacon, crusty bread