The kind people at Marx Foods sent me a very interesting package of sweet ingredients, with the challenge that I needed to use them to create a savory dish.
Its arrival coincided with a marked change in our weather. Blazing days in the high 90s yielded practically overnight to occasional rains and nighttime temps in the 40s. We even had a few exciting minutes of snow amidst a serious rain storm this past week, which dumped a foot of snow at my friends’ bison ranch. I can practically feel the warmth from the wood-burning stove with which they heat their house from here. My oven can be brought back to life. A hot dinner can not only be tolerated, but anticipated. Macaroni and cheese season has arrived.
That said, save for the highway-stripe-colored stuff from a box, it isn’t exactly a quick dinner, whatever the final composition. At the very least, you have to make a béchamel sauce, cube the cheese with which to turn it into a mornay sauce, cook the macaroni, stir both together, transfer it all into some sort of baking dish, then top it with bread crumbs stirred into melted butter in yet another bowl or pan. And bake it. Daunting perhaps for a weeknight, but perfect for Sunday supper when, hopefully, you’ve generously given yourself some time to do something pleasurable.
Marx Foods didn’t require that I use all the ingredients, but I had to use at least two of them. I roasted butternut squash to use as a filling (hence “Layered”) with the two halves of a vanilla bean pod tucked underneath. To the mornay sauce I added some of the granulated honey, and at the end replaced the bread crumb crust with some fennel flower crystals à la crème brûlée. Serious comfort food. With a twist. Or two. Or three.
FOR THE SQUASH LAYER
First, roast the squash. It’s going to be the filling, hence the “Layered.”
1 small butternut squash (mine weighed a little over 2 pounds, whole)
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 vanilla bean*
1 teaspoon pink peppercorns**, ground in a mortar and pestle
3/4 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
2 tablespoons butter
* Sadly, it’s all too common to find a single, dejected vanilla bean sitting in a jar on a store shelf at a price equal to a used car. Okay, a very used car. Pass it by. The vanilla bean and the car. A good, fresh vanilla bean should have a deep, shiny brown color, be tender, plump, pliable, and headily fragrant. Like this one.
** Pink peppercorns are not a true pepper. They come from an entirely different plant, but are similar to genuine peppercorns in size. While they have a peppery note, their flavor also has a surprising sweet-ish complexity. Munch one; you’ll see what I mean. True pepper would overpower the delicate vanilla, while pink peppercorns gently hold its hand.
- Preheat your oven to 350º.
- Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds.Brush the cut surfaces with melted butter.Fat in the butter is going to enhance the perfume-laden transfer of vanilla into the squash.
- With a sharp paring knife, remove both ends of the vanilla bean. Carefully split it in half the long way. Turn the knife over, and use the back of the tip (also called the spine) to scrape the seeds out of each half. They will look like a thick paste because that is what they are: a paste comprised of teeny tiny seeds. Scrape them into a small bowl and set them aside. Don’t be too aggressive about getting every last seed out of the bean; leave a few behind to flavor the squash.
- Lay the buttered squash halves cut side down in a baking dish. Lift each one up and slip a half of the vanilla bean underneath it (add the ends of the pod, too – you’re otherwise just going to throw them away, right? – alternatively, tuck them into your underwear drawer). Roast the squash until the neck, which is the densest part, can be very easily pierced through the skin with a knife, about an hour. After 45 minutes your kitchen will smell as it never has before, and you may be tempted to pull the squash. Don’t; the eventual purée needs to be as smooth as only being fully cooked can create. When it reaches that point, remove it from the oven and turn the halves cut-side-up to cool a bit.
- Once you can comfortably handle them, scrape out the insides with a spoon and drop them into a food processor. Add the butter and the reserved vanilla bean paste, as well as the crushed pink peppercorns. Purée until perfectly smooth. It should feel like silk on your tongue. Season to taste with salt.
- Leave the oven set to 350º.
A mornay sauce is nothing more than a humble béchamel, or white sauce as my mother knew it, with some cheese added, and often some white wine. While the squash is cooling, make the sauce.
I used a French Comté ( pronounced cohn-tay)cheese, from the Jura up around the French Alps. It’s a fairly firm cow’s milk cheese with a flavor that is at once both nutty and a bit sweet. If you can’t find it (and honestly, if I can find it at Costco in Montana, your chances of scoring some have to be good), use Jarlsberg instead.
As for the wine, I used a Pinot Grigio because I had a feeling its tartness would play well with the cheese and the honey crystals.
I was most excited to find honey crystals in the package because I love honey. I mean, I realllllly love it. I look for things to use it in. And I found this.
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoon all-purpose flour
16 ounces whole milk
2 teaspoons honey crystals
6 ounces cubed Comté (about 1 generous cup)
2 ounces dry white wine
1 1/4 teaspoons sea or kosher salt* and 12 grinds of freshly ground pepper
* The sauce may taste a bit too salty to you. However, in the final dish, it will be perfectly balanced by the sweetness of the granulated honey in combination with fennel flower crystals. Trust me.
- First warm the milk in a microwave (you may certainly use yet another pot to warm it on the stove, but you’re already using plenty of those). It doesn’t need to boil, but it should be quite hot. Your sauce will thicken much more luxuriously and efficiently because you’ll have begun to expand the protein molecules in the milk before adding it to the sauce, where they will further grow, producing a sumptuous silkiness you’ll never, ever, get from a box.
- In a heavy-bottomed stainless steel saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. After the foam subsides, stir in the flour. Allow it to cook for about 30 seconds. Begin whisking in the milk three or four ounces at a time. As the sauce thickens after each addition, whisk in a couple of more ounces of milk until all has been added. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and switch to a rubber or silicone spatula with which to stir the sauce. Continue cooking, stirring continuously, until the sauce thickens to the point that it coats the back of the spatula, which means that when you remove the spatula from the sauce and run a finger down its middle, the sauce should not spread into the space you’ve created.
- Add the honey crystals and stir until they have dissolved. Next, stir in the cheese. Once it has melted, stir in the white wine. If the sauce takes on a stringy appearance or gluey texture after you’ve added the cheese, the wine will cure it of its affliction.
- Finally, season the sauce with salt and pepper. A purist would have you use white pepper so as to blend in with the color of the sauce. I am not a purist.
I like to use pasta that has a generous cavity to trap lots and lots of sauce. One of my favorites is lumaconi, which translates (with an unnecessary inelegance, I feel) as slug. I like to think of them as snails, which are basically slugs with shells. Still, definitely a step up.
Always cook pasta in water seasoned generously with salt. Do you remember a few years ago a cooking show that featured New York chef Rocco Dispirito as he opened a new restaurant? On opening night, a wall behind the stainless steel sheeting behind a stove in the basement kitchen caught fire. And that was merely the closing moment of chaos in an evening riddled with it, both upstairs and down. Early reality TV.
I digress. He’s kind of a nitwit, and has recently allowed himself to be turned into a cookbook factory, but if you can get your hands on one or two of his early books, 2007 and earlier, the guy can really cook. He mentioned at one point that water in which pasta is going to be cooked “should taste like the ocean.” That is the perfect description of pasta water; I’ve never forgotten it, and I quote it often. Thank you, chef.
Bring enough water to a boil that the pasta can tumble about freely. The package directions will usually tell you how much you need, typically 4 quarts of water to a pound of pasta (the usual weight of a package). You’re only going to use 1/2 of the package so that you have an abundant ratio of sauce to pasta. Add sea or kosher salt until it tastes like sea water, in this case a good 2 tablespoons to 2 quarts of boiling water. Taste it. Then add the pasta.
Since mac and cheese is going to be baked in the oven, undercook the pasta by a couple of minutes, as also indicated on the package. It was suggested that my lumaconi cook for 12-14 minutes. I cooked them for 12 minutes. By the time it has finished baking, really just long enough to caramelize the surface, it will have a perfect al dente texture. It wants to stand apart and be distinct from the consistency of the squash filling. It wants to stand up the sauce, to simultaneously contain it and be enrobed by it, not be consumed by it.
Makes 4 servings
- Drain the pasta through a colander and rinse it with cold water to stop it from cooking. Pour it back into its cooking pot.
- Add the mornay sauce and stir it to blend well.
- Fill 4 8-ounce ounce oven-proof bowls halfway with the pasta and sauce mixture. Divide the puréed squash among them, using the back of a spoon to gently spread it over the surface of the each. Divide the remaining pasta among the bowls.
- Set the bowls on a baking sheet (just in case the contents bubble over) and put them in the oven. Bake just until the sauce is bubbling and the surface has browned a bit, about 20 minutes.
- Remove from the oven. Let sit for 5 minutes for cooking to slow. Scatter one teaspoon of fennel flower crystals over the surface of each bowl. Use a propane torch to brûlé them. Don’t worry if all the crystals do not brûlé. Their subtle crunch and addition sweetness, combined with the vanilla notes in the squash will only make you happier. And the fennel flavor that lingers on the back of your palate….oh, so wonderful!
By this time, you’ve invested some time and effort in a new dinner to welcome a new season. Enjoy them both.
P.S. Leftovers make a wonderful Meatless Monday dinner that needs but a simple reheating.