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January 8, 2006

'The dirty little secret of an honest macaroni and cheese is often American cheese'

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So wrote Julia Moskin in a front–page article in the January 4 New York Times Dining section that made me crazy with macaroni and cheese lust.

My jones was off the scale by the time I finished the story, which follows.

    Macaroni and Lots of Cheese

    Macaroni and cheese is just the kind of all-American, old-fashioned home cooking I was not raised on.

    New York City in the 1970's was a hotbed of culinary radicalism.

    Food-forward parents like mine served dinners of homemade falafel, Mediterranean fish stew or stir-fried beef with broccoli.

    To me, dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, mashed potatoes with gravy and macaroni and cheese seemed exotic and unattainable.

    Naturally, this is where my greatest passions lie as a cook.

    And after the frenzy of holiday cooking, a simple dish like macaroni and cheese is just what I want to make now.

    Lacking a family recipe, I turned to cookbooks for guidance.

    A strange substance called "white sauce" cropped up again and again.

    Bread crumbs, Worcestershire sauce and alien cheeses like smoked gouda and parmigiano also kept finding their way in.

    None of the recipes came close to my fantasy of what the dish should be: nothing more than tender elbows of pasta suspended in pure molten cheddar, with a chewy, golden-brown crust of cheese on top.

    While reading the following passage in a 20-year-old cookbook called "Simple Cooking," the problem became clear:

    "A good dish of macaroni and cheese is hard to find these days. The recipes in most cookbooks are not to be trusted... usually it is their vexatious infatuation with white sauce, a noxious paste of flour-thickened milk, for this dish flavored with a tiny grating of cheese. Contrary to popular belief, this is not macaroni and cheese but macaroni with cheese sauce. It is awful stuff and every cookbook in which it appears should be thrown out the window."

    The book's author, John Thorne, still adheres to this position, but said that he has largely given up the fight.

    "Starting at about the turn of the 20th century, there was a huge fashion for white sauce in America - chafing-dish stuff like chicken à la king, or creamed onions," he said last week.

    "They were cheap and seemed elegant, and their legacy is that people choose 'creamy' over everything else. But I maintain that macaroni and cheese should be primarily cheesy."

    Marlena Spieler, author of a forthcoming book, "Macaroni and Cheese" (Chronicle), agreed that most recipes simply do not have enough cheese.

    "I believe in making a cheese sauce and also using shredded cheese," she said.

    But she refuses to forgo white sauce altogether.

    "You need a little goo to keep the pasta and cheese together," she said.

    Having made a global study of the subject, she ticked off a list of alternative binders: mascarpone, crème fraîche, eggs, heavy cream, egg yolks, cottage cheese, butter and evaporated milk, which she deems a little too sweet but "delightfully trashy."

    Like me, Ms. Spieler believes that macaroni and cheese, which is often served alongside fried chicken or barbecue, deserves pride of place as a main dish.

    "I love it so much that I want to focus on it," she said.

    A crisp green salad and a glass of wine turn mac and cheese into a meal, she added.

    I first made Mr. Thorne's recipe, a step in the right direction: it combines a whole pound of cheddar cheese with half a pound of macaroni.

    But the method, which entails taking the dish out of the oven every five minutes to stir in more cheese, is tiresome.

    And so, armed with the knowledge that a seemingly outrageous 2:1 ratio of cheese to macaroni is indeed possible, I set out in search of the ideal recipe.

    At cheese counters across New York City, complex blends of pungent, unaged, rind-washed and cave-ripened cheeses have been devised for makers of macaroni and cheese.

    Rob Kaufelt, who owns Murray's Cheese in Greenwich Village, counsels a 30-50-20 blend of Swiss Gruyère, young Irish cheddar and Parmigiano-Reggiano, or a blend of English cheddars.

    At Artisanal, cooks are steered toward the softness of Italian fontina and Welsh Caerphilly.

    These are all indisputably glorious cheeses.

    But they do not all belong in a casserole dish.

    An impromptu focus group of children living in my apartment building showed a strong preference for the cheddar family.

    Ultimately, I found, the dirty little secret of an honest macaroni and cheese is often American cheese.

    American cheese is simply cheddar or colby that is ground and emulsified with water, said Bonnie Chlebecek, a test kitchen manager at Land O'Lakes in Arden Hills, Minn.

    "The process denatures the proteins in the cheese," she said, "which in plain English means that it won't clump up or get grainy when you melt it. With natural cheese, it's much harder to get a smooth melt."

    The cheese industry and the Food and Drug Administration call a cheese "natural" if it has been produced from milk, as cheddar and mozzarella (and virtually all other nonindustrial cheeses) are.

    Plain American cheese, labeled pasteurized process cheese, contains the most natural cheese and is the best for cooking.

    American cheese derivatives are made from cheese and additives like sodium phosphates (acids that promote melting), nonfat dry milk and carrageenan.

    In descending order of their relationship to natural cheese, they are cheese food, cheese spread (such as Velveeta) and cheese product.

    Daphne Mahoney, the Jamaican-born owner of Daphne's Caribbean Express in Manhattan's East Village, makes a wonderfully dense version of macaroni and cheese that combines American cheese with extra-sharp cheddar.

    Macaroni pie is hugely popular in the Caribbean, especially on islands like Jamaica and Barbados that once received regular stocks of cheddar from other members of the British commonwealth: Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

    "We put a little pepper in it to spice it up," she said.

    "But as long as you don't make the macaroni soggy, and you use plenty of cheese, it will be good."

    The macaroni must not be slippery and soft, but firm and substantial.

    This is not the time to bring out your whole-wheat penne and artisanal orecchiette: elbow pasta is the way to go.

    One of the most surprising recipes I tried called for uncooked pasta.

    Full of doubt, I mixed raw elbow noodles with a sludge of cottage cheese, milk and grated cheese.

    The result was stunning: the noodles obediently absorbed the liquid as they cooked, encasing themselves in fluffy cheese and a crust of deep rich brown.

    The last decision - to top or not to top - is easily dispensed with.

    Resist the temptation to fiddle around with bread crumbs, corn flakes, tortilla chips and other ingredients that have nothing to do with the dish.

    When there is enough cheese in and on top of your creation, a brown, crisp crust of toasted cheese will form naturally.

    There is nothing more delicious.

    The moral of the story: When in doubt, add more cheese.

********************

Full disclosure: I licked my computer screen when I first saw the photo above, which accompanied the article.

Yum.

But wait — there's more.

How about if I now provide you with the two recipes Ms. Moskin found most likely to result in ethereal macaroni and cheese?

Would you like that?

Thought so.

Here you go:

Creamy Macaroni and Cheese

Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

2 tablespoons butter
1 cup cottage cheese (not lowfat)
2 cups milk (not skim)
1 teaspoon dry mustard
Pinch cayenne
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
½ pound elbow pasta, uncooked.

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees and position an oven rack in upper third of oven. Use 1 tablespoon butter to butter a 9-inch round or square baking pan.

2. In a blender, purée cottage cheese, milk, mustard, cayenne, nutmeg and salt and pepper together. Reserve ¼ cup grated cheese for topping. In a large bowl, combine remaining grated cheese, milk mixture and uncooked pasta. Pour into prepared pan, cover tightly with foil and bake 30 minutes.

3. Uncover pan, stir gently, sprinkle with reserved cheese and dot with remaining tablespoon butter. Bake, uncovered, 30 minutes more, until browned. Let cool at least 15 minutes before serving.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

********************

Crusty Macaroni and Cheese [pictured at the top of this post]

Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

3 tablespoons butter
12 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
12 ounces American cheese or cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
1 pound elbow pasta, boiled in salted water until just tender, drained, and rinsed under cold water
1/8 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
Salt
2/3 cup whole milk.

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Use one tablespoon butter to thickly grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Combine grated cheeses and set aside two heaping cups for topping.

2. In a large bowl, toss together the pasta, cheeses, cayenne (if using) and salt to taste. Place in prepared pan and evenly pour milk over surface. Sprinkle reserved cheese on top, dot with remaining butter and bake, uncovered, 45 minutes. Raise heat to 400 degrees and bake 15 to 20 minutes more, until crusty on top and bottom.

Yield: 8 to 12 servings.

January 8, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Hanga–Danga™

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Had enough of that crazy mess of tangled hangers in your closet?

Annoying, isn't it, when you just want a hanger, to have to twist and turn and try to untangle that mass of wire and plastic and wood?

Your cries have been heard; your prayers are answered.

From the website:

    Dozens Of Hangers And Nowhere To Store ’Em? Get The Hanga-Danga™!

    Holds up to 100 wire hangers or 36 plastic hangers, all neat and tidy, without tangling, without the hassle!

    Ideal for keeping hangers at the ready in your laundry room, near your ironing board, or anywhere hangers wait to be used.

    If you return hangers to your dry cleaners, store them here until you’re ready; then grab the Hanga-Danga™ to transport them!

    18" x 6-1/8" x 10" tall overall.

I just love that carrying handle — it's perfect.

$9.99 here (Hangers not included).

January 8, 2006 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Blog Software Comparison Chart

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At least once a week I'm asked which blog host I'd recommend for a newbie.

I always say TypePad — the one I use — for one simple reason: I can use it.

That is the highest praise possible from a TechnoDolt™.

Anyway, this "compare and contrast" link is quite useful, it seems to me, not so much for the details provided about each service — many of which are said by those commenting to be out of date or incomplete (the chart was published July 14, 2005, eons (ions?) ago in internet time) — but, rather, for simply presenting what's out there.

I will note, though, that the one feature I find indispensable in TypePad — Post Scheduling, which allows you to create a blog post and have it automatically published days, weeks, or months in the future at a specified time and day — is not available in the free TypePad product (or Blogger, for that matter).

[via dangoetz.net which, by the way, has a superb opening page]

January 8, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Motion–Sensing Light–Activated Photocell LED Night Light

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Time once again for one of our periodic explorations of the night light space.

It's not widely known — and I don't think I'm talking too much out of school here — that legendary producer Bruce Dickinson had a night light in his bedroom until he was 43.

But I digress.

From the website:

    Multi-function night light uses a bright, energy-efficient, long-life LED.

    It brings a brighter than conventional light to a dark hallway or bathroom.

    The LED lasts more than 60,000 hours and uses less electricity, too.

    Motion sensor and photocell are built in.

    • A simple, yet effective safety device for the home. Advanced LED technology provides long life and brighter light.

    • Versatile light never needs attention—just plug it in. Ideal for use in any room of your home and maintenance-free.

    • Select the operating mode that's right for you, change it as your needs change. Operates in three modes: 'On' when motion is detected, 'Always on' or automatically 'On at dusk, off at dawn' with use of the photocell.

********************

My only hesitation in recomending this tricked–out tech to you stems from the thought that a night light which requires directions and an instruction manual may not be ideal if, like me, you have TechnoDolt™ tendencies.

All others, forge ahead.

I cannot help remarking, though, that the fact that this night light "uses less electricity" than a conventional version really does not make my heart beat all that much faster.

I mean, what, a regular night light probably costs about 1¢ a decade to operate — gimme a break.

$25.95 here (Wall outlet not included).

January 8, 2006 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

A feature I'd add if I knew how

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Earlier today I was drinking my coffee (cup #1 of 3 in the morning sequence) when I had a thought.

I quickly shook myself and tried to ignore it but it wouldn't go away.

That means it belongs here.

See how easy?

Anyway, I started thinking about the occasional emails I get from readers mentioning, usually as an aside, that they're not thrilled when 4:01 p.m. (EST) approaches each day because they know that means they have to wait 17 hours for the next day's first (9:01 a.m.) post.

I feel your pain.

I am your pain, some might say but I hope not you.

Anyway, the feature I'd add would be a countdown clock, probably digital so you could see that something was happening, which noted, in real time, the hours, minutes and seconds — maybe even tenths or hundredths of a second — until the next post appeared.

At 4:01 p.m. each day it would appear, reading 17:00:00, and then begin the vigil.

At 9:01 a.m. each day it would vanish.

I'd put it somewhere unobtrusive, say on the right hand side below all the rest of the stuff there, under the Technorati logo (top).

Oh, well.

Just one more reason being a TechnoDolt™ makes life so much easier.

January 8, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

World's Hole–eist Colander

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No, not the world's holiest calendar.

Rather, a new wave kitchen utensil.

Using some supersecret "newly developed piercing process" undoubtedy perfected at a black ops tattoo parlor operating under deep cover, out of the skunkworks emerges this very stylish stainless steel colander.

From the website:

    5 Quart Stainless Colander

    A newly developed piercing process creates a uniquely designed colander.

    Features an abundance of small holes for the ultimate in quick draining.

    The stainless steel will remain strong and rigid to give you years of unequaled service.

Ever wondered exactly how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall?

Well, all you have to do is spend a few hours counting the holes in this new culinary accessory: I have it on very good authority that the number of holes in the colander precisely equals those required to fill the Albert.

$34.99 here.

January 8, 2006 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Hutt River Province Principality — World's Oldest Secessionist Micronation

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Above, Prince Leonard and his wife, Princess Shirley, the country's founding monarchs.

Located 355 miles north of Perth in Western Australia, the nation arose after a dispute over wheat quotas.

Leonard Casley, an unhappy farmer, declared his property independent and made himself Prince Leonard.

Independence Day was April 21, 1970.

Though the Australian government has to date refused to recognize Prince Leonard's claim, his tiny principality has nevertheless minted over 200 types of coins along with a few banknotes.

Any visitor is eligible to become a citizen and receive a passport.

There are now over 13,000 overseas citizens; foreign consulates have been established in several countries.

Hutt River Principality even offered assistance to victims of Katrina.

[via the December 24, 2005 Economist]

January 8, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Cordless Full–Size Vacuum Cleaner

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About time.

Electrolux makes it.

Not only is it cordless — it's bagless.

You plug it into the wall–mounted charging station (included) for six hours and you get 18 minutes of vacuuming before it's "Dust over."

Hey, if you vacuum longer than 18 minutes at a stretch you need more than this machine — and I'm not talking about a Dyson.

The device lets you remove a smaller handheld unit (below)

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to clean furniture, drapes, your car and other such places you've been avoiding.

There's a removeable dust cup "which keeps your hands clean while emptying and the internal filters free from debris."

But wait — there's more.

"An updated fan and diffuser system makes the unit quieter than other models."

42"H x 10.75"W x 5"D.

Weighs 5.5 lbs.

Nice price: $73 here.

January 8, 2006 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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