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[personal profile] misshepeshu
I'd made pesto mac and cheese once, a couple of years ago, and it didn't turn out well--it was dry, kind of lumpy, and the oil had separated from the cheese. This made me a Very Sad Panda. Today, however, I had a craving for some delicious delicious pesto mac, AND since I had volunteered to make dinner for my awesome landlady's family (she'd suffered a lot of blood loss recently due to an Unfortunate Incident, so all of us at the apartment complex volunteered to make them food on various nights), I decided to make a double batch. First, though I had to do a bit of research and find out how to make my pesto mac Not Suck Wang.

America's Test Kitchen to the rescue! I looked up the mac and cheese section in The New Best Recipe, and found out that the separation and lumpiness both could be fixed by using more (and the proper type) of emulsifier. Well, duh.

So I set out to make the sauce, with tweaks for the pesto and to take into account the ingredients I had at hand. The results were deeeelicious. Creamy, decadent, and laden with tasty, tasty pesto. Next time, I might actually cut down on the fontina/cheddar combination and double the batch of pesto for even MORE PESTO AWESOMENESS.

Here's the recipe I used this time. Feel free to play around with it, and if you do, let me know how it turned out.

I. The Macaroni:

1. Buy 1 lb. elbow macaroni. Small shell pasta works, too. Trader Joe's has some cute alphabet pasta that I ended up using this time around, which, while tasty and fun, sticks like hell to the bottom of your pot unless you continually--and I do mean continually--stir. Goddamn.

2. Boil that macaroni until it's just barely al dente.

3. Drain and rinse thoroughly under cold water to stop it cooking.

II. The Cheese Sauce:

Note about the cheeses: Cheddar is the classic, but because of its relatively low moisture content and what the aging process does to casein, using exclusively cheddar results in a grainy sauce. Fontina and monterey jack, on the other hand, are creamier cheeses. The New Best Recipe recommends half a pound of cheddar and half a pound of jack; I was a maverick and struck out on my own after reading several different gourmet recipes and went with a fontina/cheddar combination. Play around with the cheese combinations in the sauce. I've seen recipes that call for gouda, brie and gruyère, among others.

1/2 lb. grated fontina cheese
1/4 lb. grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 batch (amounting to about 1-1/2 cups) of your favorite pesto (my recipe follows below)
2 cups whole milk
2 cups half and half
1 cup whipping cream
5 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
Breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat large pot on medium-high heat and melt butter in it. As the foam's almost subsiding, add the flour gradually, whisking constantly to ensure mixture is uniform. Do this for a couple of minutes, until the roux is medium-brown.

2. Add the milk, half and half and cream gradually, whisking constantly. Allow to come to a boil. DO NOT STOP WHISKING. Once it starts boiling, turn the heat back down to medium and whisk occasionally until mixture achieves the same consistency as heavy whipping cream.

3. Take pot off the heat and add the pesto, whisking until mixture is well incorporated. Add the cheeses and whisk until cheese has melted. Add salt and pepper to taste--remember, this is going to be the sauce for something pretty damn bland, so you want the saltiness to be somewhat assertive.

4. Add the pasta and mix thoroughly. Return pot to stove and heat on medium until mixture is steaming and pasta is completely heated through--this should take anywhere from six to ten minutes. FOR THE LOVE OF MILKFAT, DO NOT LET THIS MIXTURE OVERHEAT, because the cheese will separate, and you'll end up with sauce that smells delicious but looks, quite literally, like vomit.

5. Transfer mac and cheese to a 9 x 13 pan or two 8 x 8 pans. Sprinkle breadcrumbs lightly over the mac and cheese. Move your oven rack to the lower middle position and stick the pan under the broiler for 3 to 5 minutes. NOTE: DON'T BE A DUMBASS LIKE ME and put the rack at the topmost height so that the element is RIGHT THERE. You want a little distance from the crumbs because you want the crumbs to have time to soak in and form a crust before they burn.

6. Once the breadcrumb crust is dark golden yellow, take it out and let it rest for a few minutes. Then nom the shit out of that shit.

III. The pesto:

I've played around with a bunch of different pesto recipes, and this is by far my favorite, because I've discovered that I like my pesto really nutty and really garlicky. These numbers are merely guidelines. If you've never made pesto, taste and tweak as you go until you hit a combination you like. Pesto is just about impossible to over-process, which means you can keep adding stuff as you go along without harming the texture.

2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup toasted pecans
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1/3 cup parmigiano reggiano (pecorino romano works well, too--basically, most hard italian cheeses would do well, and you can play with mixes as well)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic (you can roast this for a mellower, richer flavor, if you like)
Salt

1. Throw everything except salt in the food processor. Process the shit out of everything. Taste the delicious resulting paste, and add more elements as needed.

2. When the base taste is correct, add salt. Be cautious with the salt, because the cheese adds plenty of saltiness as it is. However, over-salting pesto for use in mac and cheese isn't the end of the world, because you can compensate by adding less salt in the sauce itself.

3. Use to stuff chicken breasts and pork chops, or add to mac and cheese sauce, or toss pasta in it, or top a piece of crusty bread with it, or any other number of delicious things.

Date: 2008-05-14 07:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] yodiepants.livejournal.com
I can hear you shouting and wagging your finger, 'DO NOT STOP WHISKING!' This recipe would not be nearly as delightful if it were anyone else. :D

Date: 2008-05-14 06:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] misshepeshu.livejournal.com
Why, thank you. It totally makes my day when people can read my voice intonations into my written capslocked invective. Hee!

Date: 2008-05-14 07:38 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tanjent.livejournal.com
Once you've got the white sauce made you don't really need to return it to the heat - there's plenty of heat in the sauce to melt the cheese and warm the pasta. You also don't risk it separating that way.

Other than that, YOM.

I've used the same basic recipe to make relatively simle from-scratch mac'n'cheese with just white sauce + swiss + cheddar + parmesan that was sufficient to blow people's minds - I'll have to try the pesto some time. :)

-tanjent

Date: 2008-05-14 06:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] misshepeshu.livejournal.com
Actually, after stirring in the pesto, the cheese and the pasta, the sauce was, at best, lukewarm, and I had to heat it up. I imagine whether the sauce has enough heat to spare after melting all that deliciousness depends on the temperature of the cheese and pasta, among other things.

Date: 2008-05-14 01:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] quietselkie.livejournal.com
I am on my knees whimpering (it might also be because there has not been breakfast yet this morning).

I might put just a leeeeeeetle bit of Gorgonzola in the mac-n.

Date: 2008-05-14 06:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] misshepeshu.livejournal.com
Oooh! Gorgonzola would be pretty good, actually.

So many delicious variations on tasty, cheesy goodness. I need to make my tuna variant some time soon. I am such a sucker for canned tuna in white cheesy sauce.

Date: 2008-05-14 05:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] freyley.livejournal.com
Ha! You have fallen victim to one of the classic blunders. No, not the landwar in asia.

Cheese in pesto.

It's not the way your Italian grandmother would have ever made it. It's an Americanization so that you can put the whole pesto sauce in a single jar (and also, cheese is cheaper than oil, pine nuts, and basil).

Your Italian grandmother...okay, not mine either... makes pure pesto. Oil, pine nuts, garlic, basil, salt (only a little). Then puts that on pasta, and puts grated cheese on top.

Date: 2008-05-14 06:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] misshepeshu.livejournal.com
I've had friends who've stayed with Italian families tell me otherwise, nyah! Though admittedly they stir the cheese in with a spoon instead of using the food processor. I imagine there's regional variation on whether the cheese goes in or goes on top.

Date: 2008-05-14 06:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] freyley.livejournal.com
You sure those families hadn't been Americanized? We are the Influence. You are under us.

Date: 2008-05-14 08:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] misshepeshu.livejournal.com
I don't know about all my friends, but one of my friends got her cheese-a-riffic recipe from an Italian grandmother who didn't speak English. Which doesn't really say anything about Americanized influences or whatnot.

And sort-of-tangentially, the question of authenticity and foreign influences in traditional cooking gets kind of tricky--if the majority proportion of a certain number of generations have done it a certain way, doesn't it become "native"? Food, like any other cultural product, is constantly subject to change and adulteration.

I'm all for pesto embracing both cheesy and non-cheesy variants. I have to say, though, that if it was an American influence sullying the purity of to Genovese cuisine that resulted in the introduction of cheese into pesto, then my tastebuds salute America. But mostly, I salute the sullying. Hooray sullying. (Not that sullying is always a good thing, but as with people, I think some of the most beautiful food results from throwing two disparate parents together.)

Date: 2008-05-14 09:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] freyley.livejournal.com
I certainly agree with you that you cannot set an amount of time required for something to be native, or traditional, or authentic. The food of the 18th century in very few ways resembles the food of today, even in areas that claim to have been keeping their food traditions alive for centuries. Although some ingredients may be the same.

I also agree with you that fusions are often wonderful things. This particular fusion, I disagree strongly is a good thing for a number of reasons:

* pesto is a flavor. It's a wonderful flavor, but it's not a very cheesy flavor. To me, adding cheese to it dilutes the pesto flavor and it does a disservice to the tastiness of a good quality cheese.
* adding cheese to the pesto encourages homogenization of color and texture on the plate. With pasta and pesto and cheese you get these three separate colors and textures that can be added on one at a time, like painting. With pesto'd cheese, you often get a greyer pesto with a less interesting texture. And you only have pasta and sauce now.
* different people like different quantities of cheese. Which is a much less interesting, aesthetic objection. It is, in fact, entirely in the realm of the pragmatic. And thus it is my least favorite objection.

Date: 2008-05-14 09:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] misshepeshu.livejournal.com
I can see your arguments.

I still like making my pesto with cheese--instead of doing a disservice to a good quality cheese, I enjoy the fusion of flavors that come with combining fresh basil and cheese together in a way that's more thorough than mere mixing with a spoon.

But keep in mind that when I eat, especially foods like Chinese or Italian (in which there's a bland staple combined with a strong-tasting sauce), I tend to mash everything together because I like the ensuing turmoil. People like Ben look at my in confusion when I stir my curry and stir-fried vegetables all together and scarf it all down, instead of taking individual bites of each.

Date: 2008-05-14 09:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] freyley.livejournal.com
that's kind of an entertaining image. =)

Date: 2008-05-14 06:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] freyley.livejournal.com
oh god the cuteness of the nomnomnom.

Date: 2008-05-14 08:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] misshepeshu.livejournal.com
Isn't it, though? I still squee internally every time I see that picture.

Date: 2008-05-19 03:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] bambu345.livejournal.com
[livejournal.com profile] quietselkie has been waxing lyrical about your mac 'n cheese, and I've been doing a bit of lusting after it. She was kind enough to point me in your direction.

I'm particularly taken by your pesto recipe as I adore pecans -- and I suspect I'll be heading off to the store this morning to find some fresh basil.

Thanks so much for posting it.

Date: 2008-05-30 02:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] misshepeshu.livejournal.com
Sweet! I'm always glad to share awesome recipes. Did you end up making pesto? How did it work out for you?

Date: 2008-05-31 03:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] bambu345.livejournal.com
I thought the pecans gave it a smoother taste than walnuts, and the rest of the family liked it so well we made some to take on our holiday. We spend a week, every May, with our closest family friends, sharing a kitchen in a village on California's central coast. I can happily say that your pesto recipe was enjoyed by three generations, except the youngest, who, at two, isn't allowed to eat nuts yet.

Thank you again!

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