February 8, 2018
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The Code to Comfort? Starch and Cream.

A whole bunch of childhood comfort foods rely on some combination of starch and cream. For home cooks, they rely on the holy trinity of butter, flour, milk. Béchamel.

Comfort food, in its many forms, nearly always carries some memory of childhood. Backpacks and pencil cases. Construction paper and Elmer’s glue. My personal comfort food of choice, baked mac and cheese, is no exception—timeless, but also straight off the children’s menu.

Part of what makes mac and cheese such an important player in the comfort food codex is that it uses the long-standing template of starch plus cream. For my father, comfort food is a buttered baked potato. For my mother, it’s a bowl of cream soup and a slice of meatloaf and a hearty portion of bread.

“Cream soup will always make me feel better,” she said in phone conversation from her home in upstate New York. “But only meatloaf will make me feel more accepting.” A detail that caused me to wonder just how much bad news in her life had been delivered over meatloaf, and also to reexamine my own childhood. (Had we eaten more meatloaf the year Grandpa died?)

As a kid, this comfort formula was achieved through elbow mac and powdered cheese packets stirred on the stovetop. Now I get my fix with farfalle or penne, at least four cheeses, and a good béchamel sauce, liberally applied. Aside from the even more basic roux, béchamel is probably the fanciest-sounding sauce you make with what’s already in your pantry. There are all of three ingredients involved: butter, flour, milk. That’s it. The holy trinity of starch, cream, and comfort.

The sauce comes originally from Renaissance Tuscany, where it served as a basic thickener in soups and stews before Catherine De’Medici chefs brought it across the Alps. A century later, in 1651, Francois Pierre de la Varenne documented the recipe in his cookbook Le Cuisinier Francois, solidifying it as the “mother sauce” of French cuisine. (Among de la Varenne’s other achievements, he was the first to codify hollandaise, though it would be a further two centuries before any Benedict dribbled it over eggs.)

This hearty helping of historical backstory did not feature in the mac and cheese of my youth. (Back then, if pressed, I would have identified Béchamel as the capital of North Dakota.) But for me the comfort now comes as much from the preparation as it does from the actual eating: setting water to boil, grating cheese, browning flour and butter together, stirring milk, dumping a pot of frothy pasta through the strainer.

No one chooses their comfort food any more than they choose their parents. Though as with any loved one, they may have phases where they feel more or less in touch, swapping for more daring experiences, coming back when they feel vulnerable, reinterpreting the relationship. I hadn’t made mac and cheese in years when I thought to try again recently. The food may have come from my childhood, but the occasion for its revival was very adult (stood up for a date, then nearly clipped by a car while biking home in the rain.) I made it up as I went. Just put some pasta in boiling water, then drained it and added cheese. It wasn’t great, but it did the job. I was comforted.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound pasta (elbows, farfalle, penne, shells, or some other that holds sauce well)
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 3 cups shredded cheese (cheddar, fontina, gruyere, even a little bleu—no set ratio, so mix and match to preference, but if bleu is used, be careful not to overdo it)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Topping
  • 1 cup grated parmesan
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs

A childhood comfort food, with a few upgrades like béchamel sauce and a four cheese blend.

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit and set some salted water on to boil. Leave the pasta to the side. The stage is set but not yet ready for the noodles.
  2. The key to mac and cheese, even more than the pasta, is the sauce. Putting it together is like assembling a string quartet. It starts with a base, in this case butter. Melt three tablespoons in a pan and when it starts to bubble introduce an equal amount of flour and stir till brown. You now have roux, which is a delicious thickening agent for soups, but level up and make this duo a trio by slowly pouring in two cups of cold whole milk and stirring until it’s the consistency of gravy. You now you have béchamel, the secret sauce to make the creamiest lasagnas, scalloped potatoes, and chile con quesos known to man.
  3. But the signature player is still waiting in the wings. Keep the béchamel over low heat and slowly stir in the three cups of shredded cheese. I use a mix of cheddar, fontina, and a little bit of a soft blue like bleu d’auvergne, at a ratio of about 2:2:1. Cheddar is classic, fontina melts into a creamier sauce, but the blue is optional. I just like the tang. Save the parmesan for the top. Stir the mix into the béchamel until melted and thoroughly integrated.
  4. You now have mornay sauce, consisting of a base, a middle, a first and second chair, to make up the full quartet and finally we can play Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. This glorious achievement would be enough by itself, and is outstanding on a hot ham or turkey sandwich, or croque madame, but set the sauce back on very low heat, just enough to keep it warm, because this is a chamber piece and still needs a few more notes to round out the ensemble.
  5. Slice a garlic clove in half and rub it all over the sides of a 9 X 9 inch baking pan or, if you have one, a covered casserole dish. If desired, you can then mince the clove fine or push it through a garlic press and throw it in with the mornay. Butter the pan generously and set aside.
  6. Take a sauce pan and melt a few tablespoons more of butter. Pour in the panko bread crumbs, stirring and tossing till brown. Set aside.
  7. Now, finally, the pasta. Once the water boils, throw in a pound of dry pasta. Farfalle, penne, shells, elbows, whatever you prefer as long as it’s got a good shape for holding sauce. Parboil about six minutes. Set a timer. The noodles should still be chewy and undercooked so they can finish in the oven.
  8. Drain, stirring the noodles in the colander to get out every last bit of moisture. That accomplished, mix the noodles with the mornay sauce, stirring thoroughly, savoring all those beautiful textural gurgles, then pour into the pan.
  9. Top with a layer of parmesan, followed by a layer of breadcrumbs. Cover and set in the oven at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes. Uncover and bake an additional ten to crisp up the top. Remove and let cool for around 20 minutes before serving. Garnish with fresh ground pepper.
  10. Optional: slip into PJ’s and put on Mazzy Star.

Cirrus Wood

Premium aged, naturally aromatic, produced in a facility that also uses soy, nuts, dairy, and gluten: these are a few of the words that might be used to describe Cirrus Wood. Or they may just be something he read off a bag of basmati rice he had in the pantry because he didn’t know what to write here. Cirrus is a freelance writer and photographer living in Berkeley, California. His writing has appeared in McSweeneys, to do lists, old year books, and the missed connection section of Craigslist, where he writes personally addressed messages to the drivers who cut him off in traffic.

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