What to do with all that cheese

Friday March 29, 2013

In general, not paying attention is something to be avoided. The consequences of losing focus run the gamut from being pretty minor (thinning seedlings instead of weeds, putting folded laundry in the wrong pile) to quite dire (scary traffic violations, grounding a ship). Recently my daydreaming left me with an overabundance of cheese sauce, forcing me to use my imagination and explore cooking realms previously untested.

I’ve made my grandmother’s ‘macaroni and cheese for 2’ recipe dozens of times. I figured out early on that it makes way more cheesy béchamel sauce than necessary - if I follow her directions, I’m actually making thick cheesy soup with macaroni swimming about. I’ve been aware of this ‘off’ ratio for years - 17 years, to be exact. I have successfully translated her recipe into delicious, perfectly proportioned macaroni and cheese countless times without issue. True, I never wrote a note along the bottom of that index card to remind to myself (or any other unsuspecting cook) to adjust sauce quantities by half, but having successfully translated the fractions for so long, it seemed rather pointless, and besides, Grandma wrote this recipe out longhand and there is a sentimental part of me that wants to leave it perfectly intact.

So why, after one and a half decades of navigating the flaw in this recipe did I follow Grandma’s proportions to the letter last week? Maybe it was the shock of getting a huge snow storm after so many signs of spring. Perhaps it was listening to the bickering of two girls who had been inside together a bit too long. Or maybe I was focusing a little too hard on VPR. Whatever it was, my attempt to make a cozy family dinner left me with almost 2 cups too much of cheese sauce.

Being the frugal, hate-to-waste cook that I am, I had to think of something. I wasn’t going to pour it over the broccoli that was being served as a side that night, that’s for sure. There had to be something creative I could do with it, short of feeding it to the dog or adding more flour to it to make household glue.

Then it came to me - soufflé! I was pretty sure that some soufflé recipes called for a base of béchamel, and if you were making cheese soufflé, why not use cheesy béchamel? I grabbed my Joy of Cooking and looked it up. Sure enough, the Soufflé Cockaigne recipe called for 1 cup of ‘white sauce II’. I flipped to the indicated page and while the flour/butter/milk proportions weren’t exactly the same, I figured I’d still give it a try. After all, I had never made soufflé and if it came out badly, I could at least console myself by reasoning that it was my first and therefore practically guaranteed to fail.

Of course, I wasn’t going to make cheese soufflé as a side dish to macaroni and cheese, so I poured it into a mason jar, popped on a lid and stuck it in the refrigerator. Our family schedule being what it is, 2 days passed before I had the opportunity to make the soufflé. Embarking on this adventure with me was my good friend Sue, whose promise of dinner was really not much more than a gamble. Fortunately she was game, so I began my experiment.

I preheated the oven, prepared the baking dish, separated the eggs, beat the whites and boiled the béchamel (got busy chatting here and almost burned it - not paying attention again!). I kept my mental fingers crossed as I popped the soufflé in the oven (every second counts!) and quickly closed the door, looking around the kitchen trying to come up with dinner Plan B in the event that this was a disaster. I checked the oven after 20 minutes - it was puffing up and looked great! Reeling my expectations back in, I reminded myself that it was almost important that it taste good. I prepared salad fixings and when the timer finally went off (set in anticipation that I would stop paying attention again), took a deep breath and pulled the finished soufflé out of the oven.

It looked lovely; golden and somehow appearing to billow in the dish. I quickly served it, half expecting to hear an audible sigh of air escaping as I spooned out each portion. Sue and I sat down to eat immediately, both wondering if we had ever eaten soufflé before. We figured we must have, but I truly could not remember a time when I had. We took the first bite.

Delicious. Airy, yet a bit dense at the same time, the soufflé had an eggy-ness that was perfectly matched by the cheesiness of that leftover sauce. It was the perfect light dinner and Sue and I felt so. grown-up enjoying this impromptu meal made of a mistake, eggs and a little cheese. Here are the two recipes to get your own ‘two meals from one mistake’. For those of you who have never ventured into soufflé territory, this seemed to be a simple and successful way to go. For those of you who have souffled before, I’d be interested to know how this one stacks up. Grandma Hickin’s Macaroni & Cheese for 2,

Times 4 (with Extra)

Cook 1 16 ounce package large noodle shapes (I used penne) according to directions until al dente. While pasta is cooking melt 4 tablespoons butter in a heavy 3 quart sauce pan. Add 8 tablespoons flour, 1 and one-half teaspoons salt and one teaspoon dry mustard and whisk until incorporated. Continue to whisk over medium heat until mixture begins to look a bit dry, then remove from heat and gradually add 4 cups milk, whisking constantly. Return to medium-low heat and cook until thickened, then add 4 cups grated cheddar cheese. Reserve 1 cup of cheese sauce and pour rest over drained noodles. Serve immediately (saucier mac & cheese) or sprinkle with breadcrumbs and bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes.

Julie’s Lazy Leftover Soufflé

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare an 8" soufflé dish by buttering it well and coating with parmesan cheese. In a heavy 2 quart saucepan bring 1 cup reserved cheese sauce to a boil. Remove from heat and allow to sit for 30 seconds then add 5 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese and 3 beaten egg yolks. Fold in 4 egg whites that have been beaten until stiff, but not dry. Quickly pour soufflé into prepared pan and bake for 25-30 minutes. Serve immediately.

Both recipes make good meals with a big side salad, one very comforting, the other feeling a bit more refined. While I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the texture of this soufflé wasn’t quite ‘right’, it was just what we needed and has made me curious to try soufflé again, actually following a soufflé recipe to the ‘T’. This way I can compare and to see if my successful first soufflé was simply beginners luck or if I am truly a talented chef. Hah. Anyone able to be so distracted as to completely overlook years of their own experience and make enough to cheese sauce to practically fill the bathroom sink should be a little more humble. Question is, have I learned my lesson and will finally make a note on the card? Probably not.


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