I’m a Gael Greene fan; I love her fashion sense (who wouldn’t admire that collection ofwide-brimmed hats) — and have always been interested in her food writing and restaurant critiques, especially since she was born and raised in Detroit, often mentioning the city in her work.
Ms. Greene graduated from the University of Michigan and became New York magazine’s restaurant critic in 1968, a time when most Americans thought the invention of canned and frozen foods were the greatest thing since Wonder Bread.
In her 2006 memoir, “Insatiable; Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess,” she describes herself as a “sensuous eater,” and her romantic exploits — invariably linking to food — include liaisons with Elvis, Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood. A woman of the world, indeed, but one recipe in her book is as girl-next-door as Mom’s Apple Pie.
On page 19 (following her description of a romantic escapade on Michigan’s Drummond Island, where for her “…love and food became inextricably linked.”), she pens a recipe for “Almost Like Mom’s Macaroni & Cheese”. After an afternoon spent raking and bagging the final vestiges of Fall, Macaroni and Cheese sounds particularly appealing so I decided to use her recipe to guide my own.
First, I doubled the ingredients in her recipe, adjusting the cooking time accordingly; if I was going to the trouble, I want to make more than two servings. But surprise! Doubling her recipe yielded a solid six main course portions. No worries, the leftovers were delicious reheated.
When I owned the Back Alley Gourmet, our Mac & Cheese casserole varied according to the bits and pieces of leftover cheese we needed to use. But one cheese was always incorporated: blue cheese — and we only used a tad, not so much that it was recognizable, but enough to give the end result a solid cheese flavor profile. In the following recipe, I used about three-quarters of two excellent sharp Cheddars, and a quarter (or less) of blue cheese.
I also used crispy panko instead of regular bread crumbs and changed the technique slightly. The cheeses lent enough sodium for me, so I skipped the bacon. Adding a hefty pinch of cayenne was a good idea as well. It didn’t add much heat, but using cayenne with discretion causes flavors to bloom, especially in cheese-centric dishes. For the unblemished rendition of this recipe, I encourage your reading the recipe in its original version to get a true flavor of her inimitable style of writing.
Ms. Greene attributes the genesis of the recipe to “… Arthur Schwartz www.thefoodmaven.com (a passionate New Yorker), who got it from Suzanne Hamlin (an ultimate southerner). I am using it here because it’s close to my memory of my Detroit-born mom’s baked macaroni. The goal is crisp, not creamy. Use half-and-half instead of milk if you like it creamier.”
I added my own Alabama-born mom’s twist to the recipe, incorporating (unsweetened) evaporated milk. Mom said it added almost the same creaminess of half-and-half, without as many calories.
If you’re reading the recipe, craving scratch-made Mac & Cheese, but have no time to cook, stop by Zingerman’s Roadhouse. Chef Alex has graciously penned his version of the recipe, which is a symphony of pan-cooked cheesy goodness in a creamy bechamel, perfect if you prefer cream over crisp, and especially yummy when it caramelizes in the pan.
Michigan certainly spawns an array of Mac & Cheese aficionados, and from my experience — whether crispy or creamy — when craving comfort food, homemade Mac & Cheese is as good as it gets.