Creamy mac and cheese with tarragon (as seen on TV)
Macaroni and cheese is one of the ultimate comfort foods.
Marion’s in the kitchen again this week – and not just ours, but at Chicago TV station WCIU. They recently featured three home cooks making mac and cheese on their morning show, You & Me This Morning, and Marion was one of them! I’ll let her tell you about her creamy mac and cheese – and her TV appearance!
I was already having a very nice birthday when Terry got an email from WCIU saying, we like your blog and we are doing a segment on local cooks’ macaroni and cheese recipes and will your wife be on our morning show? WCIU is one of the last locally owned and operated TV stations, period, with a low-key, welcoming morning show called You & Me This Morning and, really, when they asked, how could we say no? Because, as the hosts, Melissa Forman and Jeanne Sparrow, said, what is a more comforting food than macaroni and cheese? And cooks everywhere have their own versions, and are adamant about them.
Well, you know, that’s pretty true for me. I admire other macaroni and cheese recipes, but in the end I always make one fundamentally like this, which is distinct because it is not baked but creamy. I first started using this very elemental approach when our kids were little and their friends were always over, often miraculously appearing right at dinnertime. This dish is what happens when you have a houseful of kids who need to be fed, and soon, and who has time to go out and pick up food, and who knows what’s in that takeout stuff anyway?
Of course, the recipe can be tailored in many ways. You can multiply the quantities, endlessly. You can change up the herbs. If you really hate spiciness, cut down the quantity of hot sauce. Over the years we’ve made this with all sorts of cheeses (if you can find sharp Pinconning cheese, wow! and some time, try it with brie, seriously – not for the children but for yourself). The one thing I would not change is the dry mustard. It doesn’t impart a mustardy taste; the effect is subtle, but you really shouldn’t leave it out.
The whole point of this recipe is that this is inexpensive, accessible, with ingredients that are widely available, and it can be made very quickly (in about half an hour, less time than it takes for you to run out for fast food or wait for the pizza to arrive). Because it is not baked, it has a soothing creaminess. In memory of my mother (who thought that any pale savory dish should have a sprinkling of paprika on it) it also includes a last-minute garnish of paprika – so little that you don’t really taste it, but it gives the whole a pretty finish. Thanks, Ma.
And by the way, you know how, when you see hosts on a talk show, and they seem so nice and sweet, and you wonder what they really are like? Well, at WCIU, the answer is: even nicer live than on TV. Jean and Melissa, the hosts, were welcoming and friendly and smart and lovely, and every single person behind the scenes was that way too. It was a pleasure to meet Danyel and Anthony, my fellow cooks. The whole thing was just a lot, lot, lot of fun. And I got to show off on TV. How’s that for a birthday present?
(See next page for recipe)
Marion’s Creamy Mac and Cheese with Tarragon
Serves three or four adults
4 tablespoons flour
2-3/4 cup whole milk or half and half (for extra creaminess)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 ounces Parmesan, freshly grated (about one cup)
6 ounces extra sharp cheddar, grated (about three cups, the sharper the better)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon hot sauce (we prefer Cholula brand)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh tarragon, divided
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
3 cups uncooked dry pasta (for this recipe, I used pennette, but any macaroni or other small tubular pasta will do)
First, put a pot of water on the stove and bring it to a boil. Add a dash of salt to the water. When the water begins a full rolling boil, pour in the pasta, stir to make sure it isn’t sticking together and lower the heat to a nice simmer. To time the pasta, check the package and set a timer to make sure you don’t overcook the type you’ve chosen.
Next, put the butter and oil in a large nonstick skillet and heat it over a medium flame. When the butter has melted, begin making the roux: Scatter the flour around and blend it all together, using a heatproof spatula (a silicone one is ideal). The idea is to coat every particle of flour with oil so that, when the flour begins to expand during cooking, it won’t form awful globs in your sauce. Once everything is blended together, continue stirring with the spatula until the roux begins to brown – you are aiming for a light caramel color and just the beginning of that wonderful popcorn-butter smell.
When the roux is lightly toasted, pour in the milk all at once and begin to whisk it. (I recommend using a very flexible silicone-coated or nylon whisk.) Stir and whisk until the roux is well incorporated into the liquid. At this point, grind some black pepper into the sauce, then add the salt, dry mustard, hot sauce and the 1 T of fresh tarragon. Whisk again.
At this point, check your pasta. It should be almost done. When it is ready, drain it into a colander and run it under hot water so it doesn’t stick together, then let it drain in the colander while you finish the sauce.
The best way to thicken the sauce is to work over medium-high heat, stirring and keeping a watchful eye to avoid boiling. When the sauce starts to thicken, then add all the cheese, lower the heat, and stir the cheese into the sauce. When the cheese is nicely melted into the sauce, give the pasta a stir in case there is any extra water lurking among the noodles, then pour the pasta into the sauce. Stir it all together well.
Spoon the mac and cheese into a serving dish. Garnish with the remaining 1 teaspoon of fresh tarragon. Then at the last, sprinkle paprika lightly over the top.
Serve right away with a simply dressed salad.
To read the original post and see the clip from WCIU's "You & Me This Morning," click here.
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