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MACARONI and CHEESE
June 2000 culture shock. No more restaurants to run and back in New York after a year in Manila and Singapore.
Instead of cold turkey, I decided I need a bit more of the hospitality world, and accepted an invitation to an important wine tasting of worldwide cabernet sauvignons with some industry giants.
In an instant inside the tasting room I was back to my previous reality.
That’s what the famous Australian wine-maker across the table from me howled. His face lit up as he sucked in the wine from the brown-bagged bottle number 2. I had mind-popping recollections of Amazonian indigenous peoples closing the jaws of cutter ants like a surgeon’s clamp onto any surface wounds and, as the two sides of the cut start to close, crushing the ants against the wound to let those powerful juices coagulate the blood. It did taste a bit like chewing black ants and sucking on wounds.
Wine-maker of the Year 2000 frowned a reply.
“More like the heel of an expensive rubber boot,” said another, snapping me back to reality in the room. I spat my wine.
“Old cedar furniture!”
What, I thought to myself, are we talking about here? Wine, or running through an autumn forest, stepping on insects, in an antique furniture store and licking anything in sight?
I had walked into the room with two prejudices and walked out with none. The first was that I prefer French first growth cabernets to California ones. The second was that no way would I be guilty of the Stephen Spurrier syndrome (great wines may not win, since lesser younger ones often show better). My first prejudice turned out, tasting blindly, not to be true, and as for the second, who cares? Whatever tasted the best was the best that day, and Australia and California showed better than France did. Mind you, there was none of my favorite Haut-Brion even though I thought I had found it in several bottles.
In the first six-bottle flight, bottle #5 had the ants, leaves, and upholstery of a Louis Seize fauteuil not changed since Versailles days. No one liked it – except me. Versailles was the clue. I knew it was French. Not Karl Lagerfeld chic (“over-sized without being vulgar”), but more Pauillac dowager aunt.
But I am getting carried away!
It’s the new me: I am not going to mention the dogs, however shocked you would be to read some of those famously-named disappointments. The first flight winners were a Leonetti 98, and the Henley 97. My Pauillac aunt that I thought was O’Brian was a Pichon. Each flight had a pleasant surprise, and this time it was the Sterling. As for the very good Hess Napa, at only $35 was there something wrong with it? With me for liking it?
In the next flight the huge extract and alcohol Tyrannorsaurus Rex syndrome reared up and roared starting with the d’Arenburg (McLaren Vale, South Australia) “Copper Mine Road,” a monster from a winery that is usually one of my first picks in the world for delicious drinking value. The Joseph Phelps “Baachus” softened the roar, but set fire to your pocket at $125. The winner was Diamond Creek “Volcanic Hill,” landing on your table with an explosive $175.
Next, Washington state (not just onions in Walla Walla) made us all look up, but the Napa Cardinale 97 won the ribbon, screeching in at $118. The Optima at $32 was a surprise. Then both Stag’s Leap, “Fay” and “SLV,” took the honors. The surprise was again Washington, a Woodward Canyon at half the price. And finally, the Mount Merry from Yarra (South Australia) was not best of show. I am not sure which one was, but the best of the flight was the Groth, and the Opus One that I thought was aunt Pauillac again.
I was amazed at myself for choosing so many California wines, and really annoyed at the prices (even then). All I could think of was Greek tragedy, as in don’t make the gods too jealous or wish for what you want. All the wines were too powerful, too alcoholic, and too expensive.
But I did not spit.
In preparation for all that acid in my system, I had some luxurious mac and cheese waiting at home.
I had made the white sauce first.
WHITE OR BÉCHAMEL SAUCE
One of the "mother sauces" of French cuisine, meaning it is the basis for many other sauces. Made with three main ingredients only, flour, butter, and milk (or cream). Adding gruyere cheese it becomes Mornay, for example. When Italian Besciamella, it is one of the two sauces for lasagna. Add a stock and it becomes a velouté.
Flour-thickened sauces have recently gained a bad reputation. Like great courtesans, they seem to come and go. Their recent decline in fashion is the result of years of malpractice. In and of themselves, properly executed, they are light, ethereal, digestible and, in this case, liquid velvet. This recipe calls for double the usual milk quantity because it should be cooked for 30 minutes and will reduce as it does.
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons flour
4 cups hot milk
¼ teaspoon salt
Melt the butter in a saucepan and whisk in the flour. Cook over a medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Whisk in the milk or cream. Bring to a simmer, skim off any scum, and put the saucepan half off the heat so that it boils gently on one side only. Simmer, skimming constantly on the non-boiling side, for 30 minutes. Add the salt, cook for 5 minutes, strain.
MACARONI & CHEESE
A French touch full of sublime! Anyone who loves macaroni and cheese loves this one that borders on sinful.
This dish needs to made the day before up to the point of finishing, so is perfect for entertaining. Making the white sauce at the same time.
Equipment: 2 -quart oven proof gratin dish, 6-quart pot for pasta, colander, large mixing bowl
Total Time: 35 minutes (plus the overnight time)
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Finishing Cook Time: 25 minutes
3 quarts Water
1pound Dried elbow macaroni
3 cups Cold whipping cream
1 cup White sauce (Béchamel)
1 cup Gruyere cheese, coarsely grated
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, finely grated
1 cup Fresh white breadcrumbs, coarse, no crusts
4 ounces Salted butter
Ground white pepper
Fill the pot to within 4 inches of the top and bring to a rolling boil. Add 2 tablespoons of salt and the macaroni. Stir until the water comes back to the boil and no macaroni is stuck to the bottom of the pot. Cook for 7 minutes and taste one. There should be no floury center. If there is, cook another minute and taste again. When firm to the bite, drain, and put in the mixing bowl. Immediately add the cold cream and mix well. When the macaroni is cold, cover and refrigerate overnight.
To finish the dish:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Put the bread crumbs in a little bowl, melt the butter, pour over the crumbs. Mix thoroughly and salt lightly.
Strain the pasta and put the cream and white sauce in a saucepan. Add the cheeses and heat onto until the cheese begins to melt. Immediately and the macaroni, mix, season (salt only if necessary) and put while hot into the gratin dish. Cover evenly with the buttered crumbs and put in the oven. Bake for about 15 minutes until the macaroni begins to bubble and the breadcrumbs are lightly browned.
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