Just this past weekend, I was walking through Whole Foods with one of my besties from high school (she was in town for a conference) when Emily said, “I could give up meat in an instant, but I could never give up cheese.” I smiled because I have several friends who are bona fide cheese fiends. It’s quite the accomplishment that I can eat Gruyère, but that is about as exotic as I get… which I realize isn’t terribly exotic at all. Still, when presented with the opportunity to receive a review copy of Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese, I could not wait to crack it open.
224 pages of cheesy goodness
Stephanie and Garrett – two incredibly talented individuals – are the masterminds behind the book (Garrett is one of my favorite food writers). They teamed up to present countless hours of research and recipe development in this glorious collection of all things pasta, cheese, and more cheese. As I stated before, I am not a cheese person, but found myself mesmerized by Matt Armendariz’ seductive photos of melty cheese and pasta. After perusing fresh salads, creamy stovetop dishes, hearty mains, and sweet recipes, I settled on pastitsio for my test drive. Hot casserole-style dishes are especially welcome during our Arctic cold snap in the Rockies.
the meat sauce: tomato paste, canned tomatoes, olive oil, white wine, salt, ground lamb, pepper, oregano, bay leaves, rosemary, cinnamon, allspice, garlic, onion
for the pasta and mornay sauce: olive oil, milk, penne, pecorino romano, butter, eggs, salt, flour, pepper
The recipe calls for Kefalotyri, which I could not find, so I used the recommended substitution of Pecorino Romano. That’s another nice thing about this book. Even though I know zip about cheeses, Stephanie and Garrett introduce the reader to new and exciting varieties while offering more common cousins in case you can’t source the original. Other than the cheese, all of the other ingredients are easy enough to find. Oh wait, except bucatini – I couldn’t find that either and opted for penne, a pasta for which I have strong affections.
start the meat sauce: add browned ground lamb to sautéed onions and garlic
add wine, spices, tomato paste
pour in the canned tomatoes
simmer it down for 30 minutes
I deviated a little bit from their recipe, browning the lamb first and draining off all of the fat (there was a lot). The sauce smells heavenly as it simmers on the stove. And definitely let most of the liquid boil off so you don’t wind up with a runny pastitsio. While the sauce becomes saucy, you can work on the other parts of the dish. I should warn you now, if you were hoping to get away with minimal dishes, this may not be the recipe for you. I made an ass ton of dirty dishes. Ass. Ton.
ready the pasta: penne, olive oil, pepper, egg whites, grated cheese, salt
whip the whites to soft peaks (this is a little more than soft peaks)
Cook the pasta just shy of al dente. The recipe suggests 3/4 of the recommended cooking time on your pasta’s package. This ensures that you won’t have soggy noodles in the final dish, but it also means the noodles won’t be as fragile when you toss or manipulate them. It makes for prettier presentation too.
toss the pasta with olive oil
gently mix the pasta with egg whites and cheese
season with salt and pepper
and the sauce should be ready (remove the bay leaves)
When the sauce is ready, remove the bay leaves and prepare the mornay sauce. The mornay sauce starts with a roux and hot milk is whisked in to form a thickened creamy sauce. Then egg yolks are tempered and added back to the sauce to give it some custardy goodness. The last step is to stir in a boatload of cheese. It’s a lot of cheese. Maybe too much for my taste, but probably heaven for proper cheese lovers.
heat the milk
whisk flour into the hot butter and stir until the roux turns brown
whisk in hot milk
The purpose of tempering egg yolks is to avoid curdling the yolks. We often do this for custards, especially if you make a lot of custard-based ice creams. Plopping an egg into a large body of hot liquid is going to cook that egg pretty quickly. That isn’t what we want when we make custards or want egg yolks to thicken a sauce. By adding a little bit of the hot liquid to the yolks and whisking it in quickly, we bring the temperature of the yolks up gradually without shocking the proteins. Add a little more liquid and again, you raise the temperature gradually. Usually after the second addition, the temperature is close enough to the sauce that you can safely add the egg mixture to the pan and stir it in without curdling. Nifty. Stirring over gentle heat should result in a smooth, thicker sauce.
tempering the yolks with a little hot milk mixture
whisk the tempered yolks back into the saucepan
stir the cheese into the sauce once it has thickened
The assembly is easy as long as you have the patience to line your pasta up. I imagine it would be far faster with bucatini than penne, but it’s worth the effort for the pretty. Layer half of the pasta on the bottom of the baking dish. The meat sauce goes over the pasta, then a final layer of pasta on top of the sauce. Finish layering with the mornay sauce. I had more mornay sauce than would fit in my baking dish, so I recommend an extra deep baking dish or perhaps a slightly larger pan. It still turned out great. And definitely set your pan on a foil-lined baking sheet to catch the juicy drips that will invariably bubble over in the oven.
layer the penne
gently spread the sauce over the pasta
layer more pasta on the meat sauce, then cover with the mornay sauce
sprinkle cheese on top
In the end, we enjoyed this wholly satisfying cheesy twist on a Greek classic. I’m glad that I couldn’t use all of my mornay sauce because I felt (for my amateur cheese tastes) that it was a tad strong for my liking. The reduced amount of sauce was more than sufficient. Perhaps in the future, I’ll use less cheese in the mornay sauce (because I’m a cheese wimp). Still, this is a lovely, hearty meal that is perfect on a chilly evening. And if you have a cheese loving cook in your life, this book would make a fantastic gift.
delectable layers: comfort food at its best
I received a free review copy of Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese from Little, Brown and Company with no obligation. My thoughts. My words.
2 tbsps olive oil
1 1/4 lbs. ground lamb
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
14 oz. crushed tomatoes
4 tbsps tomato paste
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp fresh oregano, chopped
1/4 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
1 large or 2 small bay leaves
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
2 egg whites
12 oz. bucatini or penne
1 tsp olive oil
4 oz. grated Kefalotyri or Pecorino Romano
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
2 egg yolks
3 cups whole milk
3 tbsps butter
3 tbsps flour
10 oz. grated Kefalotyri or Pecorino Romano
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
Make the meat sauce: Brown the lamb in a large saucepan or stockpot over high heat. Drain the fat and reserve the lamb in a bowl. Heat the olive oil in the same pan over medium heat and sauté the onions until soft. Add the garlic and sauté for a minute. Add the lamb, tomatoes, tomato paste, wine, cinnamon, allspice, oregano, rosemary, bay leave(s), salt, and pepper. Stir everything together. When the sauce comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer the sauce for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally until most of the liquid has simmered away. Remove the bay leaves.
Prepare the pasta: Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks (should just hold its shape, but will fall back on itself rather than stand upright like stiff peaks). Cook the pasta according to the package instructions, but only cook for 75% of the suggested cooking time (because it will cook some more in the oven). Drain the pasta. If you are using bucatini, cut the noodles so they are 8-inches long (or the length of your baking dish). Return the pasta to the pot. Add a teaspoon of olive oil and toss with the pasta, then let the pasta rest for a minute. Add the egg whites and 4 ounces of grated cheese. Toss well, season with salt and pepper.
Make the mornay sauce: You can make this sauce while the pasta is cooking. Beat the egg yolks in a medium bowl. Heat the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat. Turn off the heat when the milk just starts to boil at the edges. Place the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the flour and whisk or stir until the roux takes on a light brown color, making sure to scrape the bottom to avoid burning. This should take about 3 minutes. Slowly stir the milk into the roux and continue stirring until the sauce takes on a nappe consistency (should be able to drag a clear line across the back of a spoon). Remove the pan from heat. Temper the yolks by whisking 1/4 cup of the hot sauce into the beaten egg yolks, whisking quickly to avoid curdling the eggs. Whisk another 1/4 cup of the sauce into the egg yolks. Whisk the egg yolk mixture back into the saucepan until incorporated. Reserve 1/2 cup of the grated cheese and set aside. Stir the rest of the grated cheese into the sauce until melted. Season with salt and pepper.
Assemble the pastitsio: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease the bottom and sides of a deep 8×8-inch baking dish (mine was 9×9-inch) with olive oil. Give the pasta a stir and pour half of it into the baking dish. Smooth the pasta out so that they are parallel and cover the surface area of the dish. Gently spread the meat sauce over the pasta to completely cover the noodles. Spread the rest of the pasta over the meat sauce, arranging the pasta like the first layer and covering the meat sauce layer. Pour the mornay sauce over the pasta, making sure to cover every surface. I did not use all of my mornay sauce because my dish was not deep enough to accommodate everything. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the sauce. Set the baking dish on foil-lined baking sheet to catch drips and overflows during baking. Bake for 30 minutes until the cheese on top is golden. Let cool for 30 minutes before serving or refrigerate overnight and reheat in a 225°F oven for 30-45 minutes or until bubbly. Serves 6.
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