Return of the Mac

I’m sorry for being AWOL lately, it has been a hell of a week. My first medical school interview, my first pre-interview irrational panic, all on top of scrambling to pack before getting the house tented and trying not to drop the ball at my full-time job. Needless to say, I have been crazy stressed and, sadly, have had little time to cook.

Finally last night, as my asshole cat howled for hours about how pissed he is that we tricked him into getting into a kennel, I returned to the kitchen. It felt real good.

It had been a rough couple of days for all of us and I felt like we needed comfort food. Like many health-conscious adults, I seek comfort in the form of large amounts of cheese and butter. Nothing gives me those warm fuzzies quite like a big bowl of mac n’ cheese. I woke up in the morning on a mission. I was GOING to make gluten free mac work and I was going to make it work TONIGHT.

For those of you that have never had to mourn the loss of gluten, lucky you.

My mom is one hell of a cook. I learned everything I know from her, Food Network binges, and the magical world of Twitter. As good as she is, there are two things she can’t cook to save her life. One is a pork chop, which somehow always turns into some pale hockey puck from hell, and the other is mac n’ cheese. In all fairness, a lack of glorious gluten makes it tough.

Gluten-free mac is quite the conundrum and it suffers from a few major problems:

1)      Texture- Somehow it always turns into a dry, sandy mess. The cheese sauce loses its creaminess, those devil-noodles soak up every ounce of joy dementor-style yet remain tasteless, and you end up with a sad pile of dried-out noodle rocks. If you ever manage to chip that mess out of your poor pan, it can be repurposed to pave roads.

2)      Mush-itude- When they don’t get dry, the noodles have a tendency to just… fall apart. Suddenly instead of pasta you have… chunky thick cheese goop? It’s bad y’all.

3)      Water-sauce- even if you do manage to whip out some survivable noodles, the sauce is tough to thicken without it taking on that dreaded gritty consistency. There you are, cradling a bowl of wasted cheese crying “There’s no ingredient like gluten. There’s no ingredient like GLUTEN!” while clicking your heels and begging to be in a better place.

Keeping those issues in mind, I had a few ideas about how to solve them:

1)      Good quality noodles- these days, with the growing popularity of gluten-free dieting, there have been a lot more GF products rolling out. Now there are actually some decent pasta alternatives! I highly recommend Barilla GF noodles, they hold their own, have nice texture, and don’t have an ‘off’ taste like some other gluten substitutes. When buried in beautiful cheese sauce, you can hardly tell the difference.

2)      An attempt at a gluten-free roux- The key to a great cheese sauce is browning a beautiful combination of equal parts butter and flour called a roux. It forms a base for the thickening of sauces and soups. Unfortunately, gluten free alternatives don’t tend to make the most beautiful roux. Many try to thicken the sauces later with potato starch or other alternatives, but, especially in the case of cheese, this tends to become gritty before it thickens sufficiently. These days, there are decent flour alternatives. My favorite (that y’all have seen me use here many times by now) is Cup for Cup. A mix of meals and starches, I find that this blend most closely resembles regular flour in behavior.

3)      Extra-creamy sauce- I went about this a couple of ways. First, I used a blend of cheeses that already lean towards ultra creamy. Gruyere and Brie were the superstars, with their extreme meltiness and gentle flavor that allowed aged white cheddar to shine. Second, I used heavy cream in my milk mixture. This recipe isn’t going to win any health awards but, honestly, fuck calorie counts. Your fitness app can mind its own business for tonight.

4)      Undercooking the noodles and using them cold- I much prefer the brown, crusty deliciousness of baked mac, but with the lack of gluten to help noodles hold their own the gluten-free version tends to suffer a baking breakdown. I decided to try to combat this by cooking the noodles first, draining them about a minute before they should be done when they still had a little extra chew to them, and letting them cool before adding them to the sauce. I hoped that this would do a few things:

a. Keep from adding extra water to the sauce (letting the noodles dry a little).

b. Keeping the noodles from becoming mush- my hope was that if they were cold going in, it would allow the sauce and the oven to warm them through and get them to al dente without crossing the border into overcooked crap.

5)      Keeping the sauce-to-noodle-ratio up- I knew the noodles would soak up some of the moisture, so I tried to keep it extra saucy.

Ingredients:

  • One small wheel of brie (4.5 oz), rind removed and diced
  • ½ lb gruyere, grated
  • ½ lb white cheddar, grated (I used Kerrygold)
  • 1 ½ cups parmesan, ground
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 2 cup whole milk
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • 1 heaping tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons hot sauce (I used Texas Pete)
  • 1 tsp white pepper
  • ½ tsp garlic powder
  • 1 box (16 oz) Barilla Gluten-Free elbow pasta
  • 1 cup Gluten-Free breadcrumbs (my favorite is Krusteaze Panko)
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Olive oil
  • Dried rosemary and thyme
  • 5 oz good-quality butter
  • ¼ cup Cup for Cup gluten-free flour

The Breakdown:

1)      Cook pasta according to package directions, draining one minute before the suggested time. Set aside. You might be thinking, wait! Won’t that pasta stick together as it cools? Nope, ain’t no gluten glue in there my friends.

2)      Melt 1 tablespoon of butter and add to breadcrumbs along with a few shakes of rosemary and thyme. Add in a healthy drizzle of olive oil and ½ cup of parmesan and stir. It should come together loosely and become a little clumpy. Set aside.

Mac ingredients

Your ingredients should look something like this. Minus the glasses, don’t put glasses in your food. 

3)      Melt the remaining four tablespoons of butter in a large pot over medium heat. When it begins to foam, add in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until it begins to brown (three to four minutes). It won’t brown the same way a gluten-full roux will, but it’ll get thicker and do.. something.

4)      Immediately drizzle in the milk and heavy cream, stirring constantly to avoid clumps. Add the Dijon, hot sauce, white pepper, nutmeg, and garlic powder.

5)      Wait for the liquid to simmer and thicken. When a few bubbles begin to lazily make their way to the top, you can add in your cheeses and stir well until everything has melted. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary. I personally added more hot sauce at this point.

6)      Add the noodles to the pot and stir until homogenous. Each noodle should be full of melty cheesy goodness.

mac before

It should be looking something like this.

7)      Divide into bowls (a good way, if you have no self control like me, to predetermine portion size.) or place in a large baking dish. Cover with the breadcrumb mixture and bake at 350 °F for 8-10 minutes, or until the top is golden brown.

I sat down in front of my beautifully browned dish and said a little prayer. “Please don’t let this be a dried-out nasty mess. All I want is a little creamy comfort. I have been halfway decent this year let me have this one.”

IT WORKED. I felt like Dr. Jekyl as my creation came to life. BY JOVE YOU’VE DONE IT! I thought to myself as I devoured gluten-free mac n cheese that hadn’t turned into a nightmare brick of pasta that is, inexplicably, dry as the damn Sahara and watery at the same time. I would have shouted IN YO FACE to my mom but she seemed to be enjoying it and I reminded myself that I’m a grown woman and should not be “in yo face”-ing people. Maturity sucks.

Once the shock of it not being a horror show wore off, I settled on being about 80% happy with this dish. It was damn good, but there were a few areas for improvement. The gluten-free breadcrumbs were still a little dry, and I might add some more liquid to them next time. I may alter the ratio to include some sharp cheddar for a more cheesy taste. Pretty much, though, I was happy. I danced around the kitchen singing “Return of the Mac” which, by the way, is a kickass song. I got my warm fuzzies.

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