Monday, January 14, 2008

Glorious mac and cheese, please.

Well, I guess January is turning into a retro food month.

This weekend was all about mac and cheese. And I'm not talking about Kraft's neon-orange cheese powder. I'm talking gloriously baked, creamy and buttery, breadcrumb-topped, three-cheese, bacon-mushroom-chicken mac and cheese.

Let me back-track a bit.

Recently, I made my first trip to Yard House, and was pleased to confirm that the food's good, and the alcohol's great. And I totally dig the classic rock tunes. I love eating, drinking and being merry while listening to the Stones and Zeppelin! ... But that's probably for another kind of blog.

Anyway, my first-ever Yard House dish choice was the (Mac and Cheese)^2. Kind of a boring selection, I know, but I felt like something hearty and comforting: "roasted chicken breast, applewood smoked bacon, wild mushrooms, cheddar and parmesan cheese with castellane pasta and white truffle oil."

And I'd thought about that $16 mac and cheese ever since.

So here's my Yard House-inspired grown-up macaroni and cheese recipe. Except I don't use white truffle oil -- I was all out, of course. Silly me. But I did decide to throw in Gorgonzola for an added kick. Take that, Yard House! (It's like that one time I totally one-upped Rachael Ray's chicken cordon bleu burgers by using prosciutto instead of ham and Gruyère instead of regular ol' Swiss.)

Glorious Baked Macaroni and Cheese, courtesy Yours Truly, with a little inspiration from Yard House and a little help from Williams Sonoma (which provided the foundation for this recipe)

1 lb elbow macaroni, cavatappi, cellantani, or other tubular pasta
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups milk, heated
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated
8 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, grated
4-6 ounces Gorgonzola cheese (or other blue variety), crumbled
1 can chicken breast, or roasted (real) chicken breast, sliced
Salt, freshly ground black pepper, cayenne pepper, to taste
1 cup FRESH* sourdough breadcrumbs
10 slices bacon
Cremini mushrooms, as much or as little as you like, quartered

Fill a large pot with water and set it over high heat. Boil the pasta to slightly underdone (it will cook more in the oven); drain. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

As you're waiting for the water to boil and the pasta to cook, be productive! Heat the milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat until barely simmering; remove from heat and set aside. Process cubes of crusty sourdough bread (if it's a day old, it'll make it easier on you) -- go ahead and process the crusts, too -- until you have a cup of breadcrumbs. Set aside.

* Yes, I highly recommend using freshly made breadcrumbs -- they will give a crunchier, yummier texture than store-bought breadcrumbs.

Start your roux: Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour; whisk to incorporate into the butter. Cook 1-2 minutes without over-browning. Add the milk and whisk to combine. Bring to a boil; remove from heat.

Add the cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses a large handful at a time; mix well.

Toss the pasta with the cheese mixture in a large bowl. Add the chicken now, if you got it from a can. Add it later if you're using roasted chicken breast. Or you can add it now, whatever.

Fold in the Gorgonzola -- 4 ounces if you like it mild, and up to 6 ounces if you prefer the potency. Add salt (keep in mind that you will be adding bacon later), freshly ground black pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste.

Spray a large casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray, or grease with butter. Spread pasta mixture into dish; sprinkle breadcrumbs evenly over pasta. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in the microwave and pour over breadcrumbs. Bake in the oven, uncovered, for 40 minutes, or until top has browned.

While macaroni is baking, cook the bacon; drain on a paper towel. (Adding the bacon to the dish later will maintain its delightful crispiness.) Discard most, but not all, of the bacon drippings.

Brown the mushrooms in the remaining bacon drippings over medium-low heat. Add a pinch of salt to bring out a little of the moisture, but be wary not to make them soggy. They should be browned and fragrant, but still firm. Season with freshly ground black pepper.

When the macaroni is ready, serve some up in a bowl, and top with sliced roasted chicken breast, mushrooms and crumbled bacon. Then say, "YESSS."

Is your tummy grumbling yet?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Icebox cookies: the hottest thing to hit your fridge this baking season.

First of all, Happy New Year! Please excuse me while I wipe the dust off my blog, and forgive my lack of updating! I know, spending time with family is no excuse. Neither is catching up on sleep.

Ah, sleep. I really do love the holidays.

Ok, enough of that. Now on to very serious business:

In case you haven't heard (and how dare you if you haven't), I must report that icebox cookies are so IN right now. And I wish they were IN my belly right now.

It's true! They are ALL the rage. Just check out today's LA Times, which features three recipes for "sophisticated versions" of what the article calls "chiller cookies": peanut butter and bittersweet chocolate, coffee-walnut and apricot butter.

The article will tell you, but in case you don't know what icebox cookies are (and how dare you if you don't), they are made by preparing the cookie dough ahead of time (a classic recipe is one that is simple with easy, but fabulous, variations), dividing them into equally-shaped logs of joy, rolling them in whatever you please (traditionally little toppings that are sweet and edible, like sprinkles), then letting them chill in the refrigerator -- or "icebox" -- and then taking them out a few hours later to slice and bake them. Unsurprisingly, they are also known as "slice and bake cookies" (please, no Pillsbury), but I like the "icebox" name much better. It gives such a retro charm, don't you think?

Anyway, the beauty of these cookies is that you can make the logs of joy ahead of time and save them in the fridge or freezer for a quick and beautiful treat later. But if you're like me, you don't have the patience and willpower to wait more than a couple hours before enjoying them.

I've indulged in and shared variations of these cookies multiple times over the past month or so (talk about hopping on the bandwagon, LA Times, yeesh), and I'm still looking forward to trying out more recipes.

Particularly, these pistachio cranberry icebox cookies were so deliciously festive at my family's Christmas party.

I find joy and satisfaction in slicing them before sticking them in the oven, too. After each slice, I excitedly proclaimed "GORGEOUS!" and showed them off proudly.

But they are gorgeous! If you look closely, you can see the flecks of cinnamon and orange zest, too. (Also, I must recognize Cha for being my lovely hand model. You are lovely. And your hand is lovely.)

I also made Carole Walter's icebox cookies, published in Great Cookies, my go-to cookbook for cookie recipes, including the marbled chocolate and cinnamon nut variations. You'll find that the "master recipe" is delicious in all its simplistic glory.

Finally, I stumbled across a recipe for Mexican chocolate icebox cookies. I'm trying these next.

Mexican Chocolate Icebox Cookies, Maida Heatter, Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts

1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup quality Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa
3/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoons cayenne
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 egg
12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Whisk the flour, cocoa, cinnamon, cayenne, salt, and pepper together in a medium bowl and set aside. Put sugar, vanilla, and egg into a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer on high speed until thick and pale, about three minutes. Add butter and continue to beat on high speed until smooth, about three minutes more. Using your fingers, work flour mixture into butter mixture until dough is just combined. Divide dough in half and roll each half into a 9-inch log. Wrap each log in parchment paper, twisting ends tightly to make a uniform cylinder. Chill dough logs for at least eight hours and as long as overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Unwrap dough and slice each log into rounds 1/3-inch thick. Place rounds one inch apart on parchment paper-lined cookie sheets. Bake cookies until slightly puffed and tiny cracks appear on surface, about eight minutes. Transfer cookies to a rack to let cool. Makes about four dozen cookies.

Happy iceboxing!