Confession: I’ve made ricotta at home before and found the experience underwhelming. True, the process couldn’t be easier, but after dumping a gallon of milk into a pot, adding some lemon juice, turning up the heat, waiting for everything to separate, and straining out the solid stuff in a colander, I wound up with the tiniest bit of lumpy homemade cheese. “Eh,” I said as I ate the fruits of my labor with a spoon. “I’d rather just buy it from the store.”
Then I read Molly Wizenberg’s new book Delancey and found myself totally intrigued by her ricotta recipe. Yes, there’s almost a gallon of whole milk but, instead of lemon juice, you use buttermilk for the acid and then you also use cream. Most impressive of all: the recipe promises to yield ONE POUND of ricotta. That final bit seemed too good to be true so I knew that I had to make it this past weekend.
Every time I make a mac and cheese I declare it the best I’ve ever made. There’s a reason for that. I grew up hating mac and cheese (also lasagna) because my dad hated cheese. So if a friend’s mom made it for dinner, I’d move it around on my plate and feign a sudden bout of appendicitis. It wasn’t until I got older and started eating cheese with my cheese-loving friends that I came back around to mac. As I started making it myself, and understood what it really was–a white sauce with lots of cheese melted into it, spread over noodles and baked–I could appreciate it as a way to put obscene amounts of cheese on a plate and call it dinner. I’ve made many an obscene mac and cheese since then (one with three cups of cream, one with blue cheese, Gruyere and cheddar) but the most obscene–and delicious–of all may be the one I just made from my friend Garrett McCord’s new cookbook Melt. It’s a mac and cheese for the ages.
Funny, I was running on a treadmill when this wonderful gut-bomb of a recipe came into my life. Naturally, I was watching The Barefoot Contessa and she was planning a romantic weekend with Jeffrey, prepping the meal ahead so they could spend the day at Sag Harbor and have a montage of Ina laughing (what a laugh!) while Jeffery awkwardly asks, as if it’s spontaneous, “How are you going to make dinner tonight if we’ve been running around all day?” Ina winks at the camera because we know, like she knows, that the mac and cheese is already made. It’s in the refrigerator next to the lemon curd for the lemon tart. Jeffery has no idea what’s coming and the whole thing is so riveting, I’ve gone three miles and don’t want to stop. Such is the power of watching Ina at the gym.
The ladies who lunch really exist. I saw them on the Upper East Side, where I stayed for several months recently, and they don’t necessarily wear hats anymore (“Does anyone still wear a hat?”) but they know how to command a room. Two women I sat next to at Maison Kayser completely ignored their bread basket, full of the city’s best breads, and complained that the iced tea wasn’t cold enough. You don’t see that in Des Moines.
Here in Los Angeles, I found myself alone one night and invited my friend Diana over for dinner. I decided that even though this was a dinner, I’d treat it like a ladies luncheon. I’d serve salad, a crisp white wine and a Roquefort Cheese tart from Simon Hopkinson’s Second Helpings of Roast Chicken.
The easiest mac and cheese is the one from the box. The next one up, though, may be this one: instead of making a béchamel with butter, flour and milk–an easy enough process, but a process nonetheless–you heat three cups of cream and dump a bunch of grated cheese into it. You flavor the resulting sauce with garlic, onion, mustard, Tabasco, and Worcestershire sauce until the flavors are bold and then mix it up with boiled macaroni. Pour into a baking dish, top with Parmesan and breadcrumbs, and into a hot oven it goes: 30 to 40 minutes later, you have a real deal mac and cheese that has dinner guests, like the ones you see above (that’s Michael and John), fighting for the first bite.
You may remember May 12, 2009 as the day in history when I served cheese for dinner. I wrote a post about it called Cheese For Dinner and 47 of you left comments because you were so shocked and disturbed by the idea. Cheese for dinner? How can you eat cheese for dinner?
Actually, most of you had the opposite reaction. “I love cheese for dinner!” one of you wrote. So, last week, traipsing through Murray’s Cheese on my way back to the apartment I decided to revisit the concept. I picked up two kinds of cheese, a box of salad greens and a pear from the bodega close by and prepared myself for the return, the return of CHEESE FOR DINNER.
Murray’s Cheese is often celebrated as the best cheese shop in New York. Frequently I walk past it and wonder, “If I go in there, what will I buy? And how can I make a meal out of that?” I’m very meal-oriented when I food shop: I usually ignore long-term ingredients like high-end oils and designer vinegars in favor of short-term ingredients like vegetables and meats that I can put to use right away. And with cheese, there are very few short-term things you can do with it, in terms of making a meal, that I find satisfying. 1: you can make mac and cheese; 2. you can…? See my point? So the only reason to buy cheese is if you want to keep cheese around long-term to snack on. But I don’t shop for long-term snacking, I shop for meals. Which is why, the other night, walking past Murray’s, I had a provocative thought: what if I served cheese for dinner?
We all remember those episodes of bad sitcoms where a character would be making a soufflé and insist that everyone stay quiet in the kitchen lest their precious prize collapse. Then, of course, an Urkel or a Punky would knock over a tray of pots and pans, the soufflé-maker would cry out and hilarity would ensue. This is how most Americans perceived soufflé, as a disaster waiting to happen. And most people, I’d wager, still think of it that way–which is why, perhaps, so many of you requested soufflé as the next technique I tackle in my Tuesday Techniques.