Given the number of children and grandchildren in my life, you’d think at least one would be interested in cooking. But no. Each one has a passing interest that quickly fades. Perhaps it’s my teaching style. Hopefully not. Anyway, when Rachel’s daughter Charlotte came to stay with us for this past week part of the plan was Culinary Boot Camp. Rachel is not very interested in cooking and she has had too many knife accidents for me to skip knife skills.
So, in thinking about what to teach her, knife skills ranked really at the top. Charlotte is a soccer player (counseloring at the UMass soccer camp as well this past week). She likes meat, but has a training diet that apparently includes Cheese-Its but no bread. Anyway, when I asked her what she liked to eat, Mac n Cheese was top of the list.
On the first night, we made a cucumber salad—sliced local pickling cucumbers cut thin, sprinkled with salt and sugar and left to wilt for an hour or two. Charlotte loved them and I am proud to say picked up the “tuck your fingertips while slicing” bit of chef’s knifery really quickly, perhaps because she is used to being coached, perhaps not. Anyway, the basic recipe—five pickling or one regular cucumber, one scant tsp salt and sugar each, should be doubled since she popped a few in her mouth each time she went by the colander. In addition, I taught her cucumbers “Aunt Hannah-style” (scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon, as Hannah prefers) and to put the colander on a plate to catch the liquid that gets thrown off. I usually add some rice wine vinegar, cilantro, and, if I have them, some chopped peanuts to the salad, but these were fine as is. We also rinsed the cucumbers if they tasted a little too salty.
Anyway, on to the Mac n Cheese. Sarah and I each have our own style. No surprise there. But the surprise is that we both agree on the winner. Holy Smokes, the late lamented BBQ in a church, used to serve a spicy version of this. You can still get the cheese sauce in their deli in Turner’s Falls, Holy Smokes BBQ Delicatessen. The key was that the sauce is really goopy. I dislike the bound bricks o’ macaroni you too often get as mac n cheese. It takes real skill to bake a standard mac n cheese for an hour and keep it moist.
So, when we tasted Holy Smokes’ mac n cheese, we were all over it. First, they added some sambal oelek for heat, which was/is fantastic. Second, the dish was really goopy with sauce. I think they made theirs as a four cheese sauce since it was a little more complex than just cheddar cheese. Sarah spent some time quizzing Lou Ekus about it and came away with the technique of cooking the macaroni and making the sauce separately, but combining them in a small baking dish, adding the sambal if the customer wanted it spicy, and baking it only long enough to get a crust. Voila. That’s how we’ve been making it ever since.
Charlotte, like most of the kids I know, isn’t really a fan of spice, so this version was going to be plain. But, I figured it would teach her a white sauce that could be turned into mac n cheese, or, with pepperjack cheese and the addition canned chilis, turned into a chile con queso, another favorite of hers.
She grated the cheese, made the sauce, helped to determine when the macaroni (actually campanelle because we both liked the shape, which holds a lot of sauce) was al dente and not underdone. The result was excellent. Everyone ate it up and we discussed how to make it again.
And she learned a key rule of cooking: the cook cleans up to the moment when she serves. After that, appreciative diners should clear the table and wash the dishes.