Marvin was out of town at a photography seminar in New York on his birthday, so I offered to have a birthday dinner ready for him the evening of his return. “Sounds good”, he said. “But don’t feel like you have to do anything fancy. Even something simple like macaroni & cheese would be fine.” He then paused, adding, “Well, you could throw some prosciutto in it!” I think the idea was that mac and cheese would be less hassle than, say, a meat-based main dish, but the mess in my kitchen today belies the supposed simplicity of the endeavor. But, hey, I’m game to cook just about anything, especially for a birthday. Ask and you shall receive!
I decided to stick with the southern/comfort food theme, so I made a big pot of collard greens in the traditional style and baked a spaghetti squash (courtesy of Jim Diamond’s garden). I packed it all in the car along with a bottle of 2006 Benton Lane Pinot Noir and headed over to Hamtramck.
Unfortunately for Marvin, I still have yet to get a camera and had to enlist him to take photographs before he got to dig in. Thanks for being a sport, hon! My first question re: the mac & cheese was, “Is it as good as Slows? (You Detroiters know what I’m talking about… their mac & cheese is a gold standard.)
He said it was just as good, only not as spicy as theirs. I’m happy with that feedback, considering it was my first attempt! The Pinot Noir, from Oregon’s Willamette Valley (our favorite region for domestic Pinot) was light and peppery and went well with the richness of the cheese and the smokiness of the collards. While we ate, we watched “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”… (Fortunately, the fact that it was the “Who pooped the bed” episode did not seem to affect Marvin’s appetite, as he had seconds.)
After a suitable pause for digestion, I dished up dessert. I had decided to make an espresso granita (see below), since I figured we wouldn’t have room for much more than that after the pasta. Again, I made him photograph his food before blowing out the candle and eating it. Thanks hon. I hope you enjoyed your birthday meal as much as I enjoyed making it!
Decadent Birthday Macaroni & Cheese (adapted from The Balthazar Cookbook)
1 16-oz package pasta (I like to use shells)
9 oz grated gruyère cheese (3 cups)
3 oz grated parmesan (1 cup)- NOT from a can!
4 oz unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
5 cups whole milk, warmed in the microwave or on the stove
4 oz thinly sliced prosciutto (obviously optional for the vegetarians)
1 whole shallot (or substitute 1 small onion)
cooking oil (vegetable or olive)
dry mustard powder, white pepper, and nutmeg (preferably freshly ground)
1/3 cup breadcrumbs (optional)
Directions: Preheat oven to 400. Put a large pot of heavily salted water on to boil for the pasta. Finely mince the shallot or onion. Cut the prosciutto slices in half lengthwise and then crosswise into thin strips (a kitchen scissors works great if you have one). Warm a little oil in a small skillet and sauté the shallot for a minute or two; then add the prosciutto. Cook until the shallot has softened and the prosciutto is beginning to get crispy. Set aside. If you’re using breadcrumbs, sauté them in some butter until they’re golden brown and set aside as well.
When your pasta water comes to a rapid boil, put in the noodles and cook for 1-2 minutes less than the package indicates (the pasta will finish cooking in the oven). Drain, toss with about a tablespoon of butter or oil, and set aside.
While your pasta’s cooking, get going on your béchamel sauce: Melt the 4 oz of butter in a medium saucepan (large enough to hold all the milk and still leave room to stir). When it’s melted, gradually whisk in the flour with a wire wisk, making sure it doesn’t get lumpy or burn. Cook this roux for a few minutes to develop a nice nutty flavor and get rid of the raw flour taste. Slowly add the milk, whisking so as to avoid lumps. When all the milk has been incorporated, cook the sauce a couple more minutes to thicken it, until it just reaches a boil. Add 2 cups of the gruyère and all of the parmesan, stirring until the cheese is melted. At this point you can add your seasonings. I didn’t specify quantities because I feel it’s a matter of taste, but try 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, about 1 tsp dry mustard powder, 1/2 teaspoon white pepper and several grinds of nutmeg. Add stuff a little at a time and taste as you go!! (Believe me, sticking your finger in cheese sauce to taste it is no chore.)
When you’ve got your sauce sufficiently seasoned, mix in the pasta and prosciutto, if using, and put in a large baking dish such as a lasagna pan. Bake uncovered for 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the remaining gruyère cheese on top (and breadcrumbs, if using). Bake an additional 10 minutes or until the cheese is golden. Be careful not to overbake, as the cheese can separate and become greasy. Serves 4-6 (or one hungry birthday boy who wants leftovers).
Espresso Granita with Chocolate Whipped Cream
This is about as easy to make as desserts come, but make sure to start early in the day (or even the day before) to make sure it has time to freeze properly.
For the Granita:
3 cups espresso or triple-strength brewed coffee
2/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup ice water
For the Chocolate Whipped Cream:
1 small container heavy whipping cream (1/2 pint, or about 1 cup)
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
Directions: in a small bowl or glass measuring cup, stir the 2/3 cup sugar into the hot coffee, making sure it gets completely dissolved. (If you like things a little less sweet, you may want to use less than the full 2/3cup; if you’re not sure, just taste as you go.) Add the ice water and put in the fridge until cool. If you have some sort of metal container it will cool faster, but otherwise just put it in a shallow plastic container with a lid and, once it’s cooled, put in the freezer. Take it out after 2-3 hours; it should be mostly frozen. Put it in the blender for a couple minutes- it will turn pale and creamy. Pour it back into the container to freeze for another couple hours and then repeat the blending process, putting it back in the freezer again to set.
To make the chocolate whipped cream, pour the cream into a bowl and add 1 tsp sugar. Whip with an electric mixer until soft and billowy, adding the cocoa powder towards the end. Make sure not to overbeat, or the whipped cream will develop a heavy, dense texture. If it is not sweet enough for your taste, you can add a little more sugar. Ditto for the cocoa powder if it doesn’t taste chocolatey enough, but you’re going for something pretty light so don’t overdo it.
Serve the granita in dessert cups with a dollop of whipped cream and a few chocolate-covered espresso beans for garnish, if you have any on hand.