We were sitting at a broad wood table inside Cask & Barrel, the restaurant arm of Enotria catering, which used to be Enotria Wine Bar. Chef Gabriel Glasier and his fiancée, pastry chef Kristel Flores, are the managing partners.
The inventive Glasier is formerly of Maranello Bar & Kitchen in Fair Oaks. This time around, he’s specializing in modern twists on Southern standards, such as cornbread doughnuts, pork belly dumplings and pork shoulder that’s hickory-smoked for seven hours before going into a sous vide water bath for 72 hours.
Also on board is Glasier’s take on mac ’n’ cheese, savory with year-old sharp cheddar and California Gouda, and crunchy with hickory-smoked bacon and cornbread crumbs on top, served in a cast-iron skillet.
There’s also a secret ingredient in it, one that comes as a shock. “There is no cream or roux in it for thickening,” Glaser said. “Instead, there’s water and wheat beer and a powdered emulsifier. We played a little chemistry lab in the kitchen to formulate it. Actually, we cracked the code of Velveeta, but with all natural ingredients. So our mac ’n’ cheese has that nostalgic texture people grew up with, but with grown-up flavor.”
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Inspired, we left C&B with a project in mind: Create our own version of mac ’n’ cheese, one that’s less of a culinary science experiment and more of a down-home, trial-and-error enterprise. Supposedly fun. Hey, it’s always an adventure when you don’t quite know what you’re doing.
That approach led to unexpected places and taught valuable lessons. For instance, a cheese grater is very sharp (just ask my thumb), and chicken stock goes everywhere when you spill it. Along the way I learned to make a roux, which is easier than you’d think, and discovered that some cheddars are orange because they’ve been colored with annatto, a dye from the seeds of the achiote tree.
Mac ’n’ cheese through time
Macaroni and cheese is a year-round dish – a casserole, really – one of America’s beloved comfort foods with limitless variations, but with some boundaries. The dish likely originated in Italy in the 13th century, say food historians, and came to America by way of Virginia.
During his travels in Italy and France, it is told, Thomas Jefferson discovered the dish, got the recipe and arranged for macaroni and Parmesan cheese (the choice in the day) to be imported to his Virginia plantation, Monticello. Years later, as president (1801-09), he served the then-exotic plat-du-jour at a White House state dinner.
Soon, recipes began appearing in cookbooks, including the influential 1824 edition of “The Virginia House-Wife” by Mary Randolph. Somewhere along the line, readily available cheddar was substituted for more expensive Parmesan, and mac ’n’ cheese ultimately evolved from upscale curiosity to proletarian staple.
Helping the progression were “advancements” in food science, such as the invention of powdered processed cheese. It allowed the debut of boxed Kraft Dinner in 1937, with the slogan, “Make a meal for four in nine minutes for an everyday price of 19 cents.” Lots has happened to the product since then, including the name change to Kraft Macaroni & Cheese – and a recall of 242,000 cases (6.5 million boxes) in March 2015 because metal shards were found in some boxes.
Kraft Foods (now known as Kraft Heinz) recovered and went on to hatch a brilliantly counterintuitive marketing scheme. First, it reformulated its recipe to remove the artificial flavors, preservatives and dyes. In December, it substituted the new product for the old one, but packaged it in the same familiar blue box – and didn’t tell anybody. Its website explains, “We quietly started selling the (new) recipe in our old boxes, updating only the ingredients line (but keeping the same taste). Then we waited to see if people would notice.”
Apparently, nobody did. The website continues, “On March 7, 2016, the largest blind taste test in history came to a close as we began proudly advertising the change to Kraft Mac & Cheese. Luckily for us, America proved that there’s nothing to worry about – because for the past three months they’ve been buying and eating Kraft Macaroni & Cheese the same as they always have. Which means it still tastes (the same).” Efforts to reach Kraft’s marketing-public relations department for comment were fruitless.
The “pasteurized cheese product” Velveeta is another Kraft foodstuff, a chunk of Americana conjoined to mac ’n’ cheese. It was conceived in 1918 in New York and bought by Kraft in 1927. When Kraft debuted its “American cheese” Singles in the 1950s, the company re-marketed Velveeta as more of a recipe ingredient or sauce, rather than as a stand-alone “cheese.” One recipe in the day called for combining Velveeta with chocolate to make fudge.
Velveeta’s flavor and texture are unmistakeable, and marry particularly well with elbow macaroni. We know of one four-star dining house that keeps it as a staple in the kitchen. Its lobster mac ’n’ cheese appetizer ($14) is in a sauce made from a roux and “a block of Velveeta,” the restaurant owner told me. “People love it.”
Another place, the farm-to-fork-focused Bravo’s restaurant in Elk Grove, mixes cheddar, asiago, mozzarella, provolone and Velveeta for its macaroni and cheese. “We needed a base that would let the sauce stick to the pasta,” explained co-owner Lisa Brown. “I’ve not yet found an organic version, sad to say.”
On the road to mac ’n’ cheese
Our mac ’n’ cheese campaign involved thinking up lists of ingredients, and hours of hunting and gathering items we imagined would get along well with others. Additional time was spent in the kitchen, trying this and that, tasting, frowning and starting over.
The rejects on our ingredients lists included orange zest (don’t ask), champagne (don’t think about asking), chives, diced fresh bell pepper, roasted bell pepper, basil, frozen cranberries, fresh garlic, granulated garlic, cayenne pepper, sun-dried tomato, whole milk, buttermilk, cream cheese, saltines, toasted pine nuts, chicken breast and Italian sausage.
Finally, I arrived at a recipe that a panel of tasters (anyone within arm’s reach) thinks is pretty good. I revisited my thick stack of cheese-stained tasting notes and compiled some context:
The pasta: We’ve seen mac ’n’ cheese made with shells, penne, fusilli and campanelle (bell-shaped). Sometimes you don’t mess with a classic, so we went with DeCecco small elbow macaroni (No. 81).
The cheeses: We went through a bunch from around the world, both cow and sheep – soft (Brie was a mistake), semi-soft, firm and hard – searching for a three-, four- or five-cheese blend that offered balance, distinct flavor and texture. We settled on Parmigiano-Reggiano (hard, granular, salty), cave-aged Gruyère (nutty, aromatic, quietly assertive) and a new player in town, British Red Fox sharp cheddar (sweet, slightly grainy, crumbly).
The sausage: Everything may be better with bacon, but we wanted something milder and less dominant. Chicken-apple sausage has less fat than pork, and apple goes nicely with cheese, right?
The topping: Panko tasted too much like Rice Krispies, and off-the-shelf salad croutons were too dry and devoid of audacity. So we dialed in an old standby, the housemade croutons from Corti Bros. Market, coarsely pulverized in a food processor. The recipe is proprietary, said store director Rick Mindermann, but involves day-old seed-free breads cut into cubes and toasted, seasoned with “a blend of oils, herbs and spices including garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper.”
Second helping? Maybe at Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, it’s time for something summery and refreshing.
Al’s ultimate mac ’n’ cheese
Time: 2 1/2 hours, including 30-minute cook time
8 ounces (2 cups) small elbow macaroni
2 links of Aidell’s chicken-apple sausage, cut into 1/4 inch-thick coins
1 stick butter (use some to grease the casserole dish and sauté shallot)
1 medium shallot, peeled, minced
2 1/4 cups coarsely grated cave-aged Gruyère
1 1/4 cup coarsely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 1/2 cups sharp cheddar
For the roux:
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup half-and-half
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tablespoons finely chopped fresh lemon thyme, or 2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
A big dash of ground cayenne, optional
1 1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs, pulverized, from Corti Bros. Market croutons. (Important note: Measure the croutons before putting them into the food processor. Do not measure 1 1/2 cups of pulverized croutons, that’s way too much.)
Grease a 2-quart casserole dish with soft butter. According to package directions, boil the macaroni until al dente. Dump into a colander, rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. Pour pasta into a large bowl and set aside.
Cut the sausages into quarter-inch-thick coins; set aside. Coarsely grate the three cheeses; combine the Gruyère and Parmesan, keep the cheddar separate; set aside.
Sauté the minced shallot in butter until limp; set aside.
Make a roux: Melt the 4 tablespoons butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When it begins to sizzle, add the flour. Vigorously whisk until a smooth paste forms and begins to bubble. Turn the heat up to medium-high and add the chicken stock in two increments. Continue to whisk vigorously until the liquid is smooth, and then whisk some more. Turn down the heat to medium and add the half-and-half in two increments. Whisk vigorously until the liquid is smooth and somewhat thick; keep whisking. Fold in the sour cream and whisk some more. The entire whisking process should take 10 to 12 minutes.
When the liquid begins to bubble, turn off the burner and remove the saucepan from the heat. Add the shallot, lemon thyme, salt and white pepper (and cayenne if using), and whisk briefly. Add the Gruyère-Parmesan cheese mix and whisk until the cheeses have melted and the sauce is smooth and thick.
Pour the sauce over the macaroni and stir with a wood spoon. Add the sausage coins and stir until distributed. Pour the contents of the pot into the buttered casserole dish. Evenly cover the surface with the cheddar cheese, then the breadcrumbs.
Place, uncovered, in a preheated 350-degree oven and bake for 30 minutes. Serve immediately.