Growing up I always associated food with a sense of comfort, warmth, fulfillment and stability. This is something I attribute to my Mom’s home-cooked meals and nights around the dinner table with my family as we discussed the events of our day, bonded through sharing the heartwarming, delicious meals together and after the meal was done, cleaned the kitchen with our Mom and bonded by watching a television show together before going to bed and getting ready for school the next day. Mom would make Pot Roast with Mashed Potatoes and Green Beans, homemade Lasagna with a salad and garlic bread, Grandma’s Beet Soup with homemade Polish potato noodles, or a yummy, savory Meatloaf with Mushroom Gravy – these were all of our favorites and also heirloom recipes that were handed down from my grandparents and generations past.
That was a long time ago, or so it seems, and since those days I have lived in numerous cities and another country, and still cherish enjoying good food with good people. But nothing compares to those home cooked meals and the sense of comfort they gave me when I was young – those days gave me a solid ground to stand on for life.
One gloomy, dark day last January, I was cooped up in my tiny New York studio apartment feeling completely miserable from the freezing cold weather and had a serious case of the Winter blues. I felt an undying urge to make a home-cooked meal like Mom used to make to cheer me up and get me out of the dismal mood I couldn’t seem to shake. New York can do that to you sometimes – it is one of the greatest cities in the world, but can also take you to the depths of darkness on those dark, freezing, nasty days in the middle of Winter. That day I decided to go on a quest for Comfort. Something warm. Something cozy. Something heartwarming. Something that would fill my soul and renew my spirit.
My head started spinning, and I immediately felt energized and motivated with this new task at hand. What would cheer me up and transport me back in time? After furiously searching through all of my recipes, I found the perfect remedy to ail my blues – a big whopping batch of luscious Macaroni and Cheese. Not just an ordinary one (like the kind you get in a blue box with packets of dried chemical-laden cheese dust), but one that called for some delicious gourmet ingredients to take this kid-friendly recipe and turn it into a serious pot of adult-sized comfort.
I hopped in a cab to Zabars on the Upper West Side with thrill and anticipation. The freezing rain was coming down sideways and beat against the windows. Once I arrived, I headed straight for the Cheese department and was in my glory with their selection of international cheeses that pierce your nose as soon as you walk in the door. I picked up a creamy Italian Mascarpone, some fresh grated Parmesan Reggiano, a chunk of Gruyere and a block of Fontina. Then I found some fresh garlic, real cream, prime European butter, smoked thick cut bacon and of course, imported Italian pasta and this was a recipe for a mean Mac and Cheese.
I prepped my ingredients and carefully crafted my dish of gourmet deliciousness. The pot was brimming with a melted creamy cheese concoction and I poured the luscious ingredients into my baking dish, watching with anticipation as the warm, savory smells filled my kitchen. After an hour of waiting anxiously to savor my creation, I scooped up the bubbly goodness into a bowl and upon tasting the first bite with its brown crispy crust and tangy creamy cheese, was transported back to a time of comfort and bliss, when I didn’t have a care in the world, a simpler time and place that seemed long gone from today in my stressful, fast-paced city life.
Who cares about the weather, I thought – I had arrived. I was home.
Artisanal Macaroni and Cheese
¾ cup panko bread crumbs
¼ cup Parmiagiano-Reggiano
5 ½ tablespoons butter
¼ cup plus 2 tbsp all purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
White pepper in a mill
Dash of nutmeg
Dash of cayenne
1 ½ cups Gruyere or Comte, grated (from 5 ½ ounces)
1 cup Fontina, chopped into small pieces
½ cup mascarpone
1 ½ cups dry pasta (macaroni, penne or your choice)
4 slices of bacon or prosciutto, cooked and crumbled
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped fine
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Pour the water into a 3-quart pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, cook the bacon or prosciutto, drain and crumble and set aside.
In a small sauce pan, melt 2 1/2 tablespoons of the butter over low heat. Add the bread crumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, toss well, and set aside.
Put the remaining 3 tablespoons butter in a 2-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan and melt it over low heat. Add the flour and cook for 5 minutes, whisking constantly, but not letting the flour burn. Pour in the milk and cook for 5 minutes, whisking or stirring with a wooden spoon. Add 4 1/2 teaspoons salt, 4 grinds of pepper, the Gruyère, Fontina and mascarpone, dashes of nutmeg and cayenne, and continue to whisk until the cheese is melted and incorporated. Remove the pot from the heat.
Add 1 tablespoon of salt and the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente, approximately 8 minutes. Drain the macaroni in a colander and add it to the pot with the cheese sauce. Add crumbed bacon/prosciutto and mix well with a wooden spoon.
Pour the macaroni mixture into an 8-inch by 8-inch baking dish. Sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture evenly over the top of the macaroni and cheese. Bake until golden brown and bubbly, approximately 30-35 minutes. Serve hot and garnish with fresh parsley. Oh, and be prepared to swoon.
Serves 4 as a side dish. For a main course, double the recipe, serve with a green salad and a glass of wine.