Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Modernist Cuisine Mac & Cheese | Make Your Own “Top Shelf” Processed Cheese Block

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I’ve been waiting like a 6 year old for Christmas for my copy of Modernist Cuisine. Thanks to the wonderful Chris Amirault on eGullet, I was able to make the Modernist Cuisine Mac & Cheese while waiting for my copy of the opus (which I’ve finally received the shipping email notification on). The underlying theme of this recipe is to create your own processed cheese that will be “break proof” (you can even boil it and it won’t separate into globs of cheese and fat) but made from high quality cheese rather than unripe scraps, etc. Imagine having a homemade processed block of cheese in your freezer that will melt and be as stable as Velveeta, but made with a fine aged Cheddar and Gouda. You need to have a couple of “chemicals” on hand; but they are ingredients that have been used in certain areas of the world for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It’s just recently that we have them available in a shelf stable, convenient form. When I did a medical school rotation in Scotland (many years ago), the wonderful 80 year old woman that befriended me made me a traditional island pudding that had been made for centuries from carrageenan in seaweed that she harvested, dried, and processed herself. So, you can’t get away with saying this is made with mad scientist chemicals – it’s actually old school, many Americans just aren’t familiar with the wonderful properties of these ingredients. As Chris Hennes on eGullet so eruditely put it:
“No, this isn't some kind of play on words, or a joke-recipe, or some kind of fascinating modernist creation. It's just macaroni and cheese. This recipe is a clear demonstration that while you can use modernist ingredients to create some really crazy stuff, you can also apply them to simply take a classic dish and make it better. And believe me when I say it: this version of mac and cheese is so vastly, clearly superior to anything I've ever had it is mind boggling.
There are two keys to the dish, both related to problems with the original: the first is that when you make a cheese sauce with a béchamel base, you have to use a LOT of béchamel, and there is a limit to how much cheese you can add before it breaks. This winds up diluting the cheese flavor, and is part of the reason I would never consider making a traditional mac and cheese with a really great cheese: its subtlety would simply be lost, and you'd gain nothing over using a simpler cheese. The second key is that not only does béchamel dilute the cheese flavor purely by volume, it also has poor "flavor release" compared to, say, carrageenan: the book spends a great deal of time talking about this sort of thing, and it's very helpful for understanding why these techniques work as well as they do.
So, the modernist version of the dish does away with the béchamel base: instead, you make a small amount of a solution of beer, water,
sodium citrate (to emulsify the cheese) and carrageenan (the thicken the sauce). You then melt a huge quantity of excellent cheese into it (I used Cabot clothbound cheddar and Roomano Pradera Gouda), in effect making your own processed cheese block. You chill it down until you literally have a block of processed cheese more or less the consistency of Velveeta, and then you shred it. The pasta is cooked in just enough water for it to absorb, and then the shredded cheese product is stirred in. You wind up with a mac and cheese the same texture as if you had used Velveeta: perfectly, flawlessly smooth. Except it tastes incredibly intensely like the best cheeses in the world! Perhaps you have gathered here that I rather liked the stuff. If this is "Modernist" then consider me modernified.”
When I read this, I was hooked! Unfortunately, when I was shopping for the cheese for this recipe, Whole Foods was having a bad cheese day; my result was good, but not transcendent. The Cabot clothbound Cheddar isn’t available until Friday, and I need to search for a good, aged Gouda. Anyway, the results were still phenomenal.

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I found the Sodium Citrate and Iota Carrageenan on I already had a precision scale for my natural perfume work.

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Uniodized, please.

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These are decent, but could be improved on.

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About 140 g each cheese.

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Wheat beer plus (not shown) 100g water.

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Melted like a dream.

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Looks just like Velveeta, but smells divine.

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Wrapped up to freeze to aid in grating.

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For two servings; cooked for 7 min. in 300 g water and 2.4 g salt. With this “low water” pasta method, you don’t drain the pasta, but the small amount of pasta water left in the pot when the pasta is al dente is used to make the sauce.

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Roughly 1/2 the block of processed cheese grated. Even though I pretreated my box grater with Pam (perish the thought), I still made a streaky mess. I think next time (as I read on the forum topic), I’ll just cube the cheese. I like a cheese wire for soft cheese such as this, and I think it will work well. The processed cheese melts so beautifully, you could almost throw a huge chunk in there and have it turn out well.

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I served this with the wheat beer used to make the sauce in a frosted mug. Once your processed cheese in made, this mac & cheese is nearly as convenient as the blue box. By the time you boil the water and cook your pasta (maybe 10 min. total depending on your cooktop); you can have your cheese grated or cubed, and your plates warmed. I’ve lain awake at night thinking of all the ways to use this “break proof” processed cheese: nearly instant cheese sauce for vegetables, fool-proof fondue, bow-down-and-worship-me Rotel cheese dip! (When I was growing up, my mother always cooked from scratch. I’ve never tasted boxed mac & cheese, Hamburger Helper, etc. I never thought Velveeta would cross my lips until an old grade school friend from Louisiana made me try Velveeta-Rotel dip on a visit during my college days) I can’t wait to bring this to a party and see the stunned reaction.
Whole Foods is supposed to carry Cabot clothbound cheddar on Friday, I imagine I’ll be there the minute they open. I may even add a soupçon of dry mustard and cayenne to my next batch. I have a premonition that my signature processed cheese will be a staple in my freezer for the rest of my days.