21. Don't Roux the Day
A simple recipe that only dirties two pots and a baking dish
It feels like I’m on the cusp of not being able to say “Happy New Year”, if not past it, but I will anyway. Happy New Year. Hopefully you were able to celebrate during the holidays in a way that was safe but still fulfilling. We were and it was a very nice change from the curbside drop-offs and Zoom calls of last year. It has, of course, gone back to that, but I am glad we got a bit of respite.
As a result of being able to have small, safe gatherings, I found myself the unexpected recipient of a pound of Cheese Boutique’s fondue mix, a blend of Gruyere, Emmenthal, and Vacherin.1 We don’t have a fondue set and there was no bread in the house, so using the mix for its intended purpose was out of the question.
I did have another starch that would go very well with gooey melted cheese, however: Cascatelli2. The traditional, non-Kraft way to make cheese sauce for pasta is to make a roux with butter and flour, turn it into a bechamel by thinning the roux with milk, and then turn that into a mornay sauce by adding cheese. That’s far more steps than I wanted to make dinner on a lazy, post-Christmas, all-day pajamas day. There are many other simplified mac and cheese recipes that use ingredients like evaporated milk to emulsify the cheese and liquid to create a smooth sauce. I’m not really in the habit of keeping evaporated milk on hand, so that wasn’t an option. But the recipe on the cheese packaging, which my sister swears by as a way to produce gooey, smooth cheese fondue that doesn’t break and turn oily, was looking good. I had dry white wine and cornstarch (to stabilize the emulsion of cheese and wine) on hand, so why not just make some fondue and mix it into the noodles?
Just like the package said, I started by bringing 6 ounces3 of white wine to a simmer. In went a tablespoon4 of cornstarch and the cheese mix and it soon slumped into a thick, gooey, mass of cheesy goodness.
Then it was just a matter of boiling up some Cascatelli to not-quite-al-dente, since it was going to cook further in the oven.
I mixed the fondue and the noodles in an ovenproof dish and then sprinkled a mixture of bread crumbs and a bit of the cheese mix I had set aside.
Then into a 325°(300°5 convection) oven for 30 minutes, until it was browned and bubbling.
The result was everything I hoped it would be. Cheesy and crunchy with good tang from the mixture of cheeses. Holiday-worthy fanciness with post-holiday-worthy ease. It’s not something I would make regularly, of course. I don’t often have a pound of fancy shredded cheeses around (nor should I). But as a splurge, I will definitely make it again.
As we were eating it, a lot of variations suggested themselves too. I’m not a huge truffle fan, but I could see the funkiness of the cheeses playing nicely with some black truffle here. Adding some leftover ham would be great, too. Or even some salmon might be nice. Chard or another bitter green might assuage the guilt you might be feeling, even though you don’t need to feel guilty about what you eat. The one thing I wouldn’t readily mess with is the cheese. You might be tempted to add something like cheddar, but don’t. Cheddar is much more prone to breaking and have its fat separate out. The Vacherin in this fondue mix might be harder for you to find, but I’m sure a 50/50 blend of Emmenthal and Gryuere, both of which are much easier to find and fantastic melting cheeses, would be terrific as well.
There may be more dishes to wash than other recipes—three as opposed to just one in many cases—but the results so outstrip the effort required that I’m pretty sure you’ll find the extra cleanup worth it.
What I’m Consuming…
I picked a copy of Molly Baz’s Cook This Book just before the holidays. I don’t think I’ve cooked more from a cookbook in a long, long time. I probably read more than half of the book before I came across a recipe I didn’t want to make right away. If you follow me on Instagram (Why aren’t you following me on Instagram?) you’ve probably already seen that in my Stories.
To my discredit, there have been times when I haven’t given Baz, who was one of the stars of the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen videos on YouTube, the credit I should have. This is entirely because I am a lazy man. It’s easy to assume Baz is not SERIOUS because she is young, blonde, and a pretty woman who peppers her writing and speech with terms like “cae sal” (Caesar salad), “Morty-d” (mortadella), and “K-bas” (kielbasa). But I needed to remind myself that the easy take is not usually the right take. And SERIOUS and excellent are not synonymous. I was, essentially, acting no better than the people who use young women’s vocal fry to diminish them.
When I looked past my first impressions of Baz and looked at her work, I realized how mistaken I had been. Her recipes are at once familiar and yet novel. There will be combinations of flavours that you recognize and some that you will be adding to your arsenal. Her book is well put together (with bright ideas like QR codes to scan for video of advanced or less familiar techniques) and of all the books I picked up the day I bought it, it was the one that most excited me. I hadn’t planned on buying it that day, but I am very glad I did.
Just to be clear: This is not me, with my basic+ food knowledge and skills, declaring Molly Baz, a culinary professional with years of experience, worthy of consideration as an excellent recipe creator; this is me declaring that I was stupid and lazy for not recognizing it sooner.
Not a food thing, but we have been absolutely devouring episodes of Taskmaster, a comedy game show from the UK that I can’t believe I’ve only learned about recently. The basic premise is that a panel of comedians are competing to complete tasks like “Order a pizza without saying ‘pizza’ or other helpful words,” “Conceal this pineapple on your person,” or “Make this Swedish person blush the most,” and are then scored on their results by the Taskmaster.
What ensues is almost always hilarious. I was worried that knowing who very few of the comedians were would be a hurdle, but it wasn’t at all. Happily, full episodes of the first nine series are available on YouTube.
What’s on the Menu…
Cornish Hen. I can’t remember the last time I had one. I can clearly remember the first time I had one: Shabbat dinner at Jordan Kerbel’s house in something like 1978. I was there for a sleepover and definitely came home talking about eating an entire chicken by myself. That might actually be the last one I’ve had in someone’s home until this weekend. A few days earlier, my sister had asked if I wanted to add anything to her order from Muddy Crops. They mostly sell fruit and vegetables, but now that they are selling online instead of at farmer’s markets, they have also added other things, like Cornish hens. So I got one, along with some shallots, and figured it would make an interesting Sunday roast.
I roasted it in my usual, Zuni Cafe-inspired style, which I’ve discussed here before, but for about 10 minutes less. It turned out tiny and terrific and just enough for Beth and me with no leftovers, which is terrific, as I can be terrible about getting to leftovers in a timely manner.
I will definitely be adding this to the rotation, especially when it’s just us6.
My sister traditionally has cheese fondue on her birthday, which is right around Christmas. An inconclusive rapid test and delayed PCR results for some planned guests meant she had more fondue mix on hand than she needed, so she offered it to me.
Goddamn I hate ounces. They are the Roughriders/Rough Riders of measurement. They are a unit of mass but also a unit of volume and many recipes don’t specify which they mean. Great. Also, 8 ounces makes a cup, but 16 makes a pound. That’s not confusing at all! I mentioned this last issue, but a fluid ounce is equal to two tablespoons, so instead of calling for 6 ounces, they could just say 12 tablespoons and give the volume in a unit that almost any home cook can easily measure. (Or better yet, 3/4 of a cup. ) Don’t use ounces! Metric, obviously, is best, especially because there are about 3 millilitres or milligrams in between 1 and 1.1 ounces. (And yes, I know that 1 Imperial fluid ounce of pure water weighs just about 1 ounce, but I tend to cook with ingredients other than pure water, so it doesn’t help much.) But I get why tablespoons and teaspoons endure as handy measures, too. At least something else like, say, the Fahrenheit scale, isn’t also measured in tablespoons. OK, rant over. I’m glad I got this out in the footnotes; I had considered an entire issue announcing my new campaign to abolish the ounce.
See, so much easier that a 300 Tbs oven!
In the past, in order to roast a chicken with no leftovers, I’ve bought whole chickens and then cut them in half, freezing one half and cooking the other. This eliminates all of that bother!