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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.
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