Weeknight Cooking: Chicken and Couscous with Fennel and Orange

I love a simple chicken breast with a tasty and healthy side accompaniment. Couscous fits that bill nicely. If you prefer salty and savory tastes over sweet, this version of couscous may not be for you. Anyone and everyone would love the chicken, which came out deliciously with a light breading and just a hint of salt and pepper to keep it interesting and flavorful. Baking it on a low temperature kept it moist and it’s finished off with an orange oil. This dish is quick and easy and is made quickly, in just 30 minutes.

Chicken and Couscous with Fennel & Orange

Chicken and Couscous with Fennel & Orange
Adapted from ATK The Best 30-Minute Recipe

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
salt and pepper
1/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup olive oil
1 red onion, sliced thin
1 fennel bulb, trimmed, cored and sliced thin
1 cup regular, fine-grained couscous (not large/Israeli-style)
4 garlic cloves
Cayenne pepper
1 cup orange juice
3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro or Italian parsley

Adjust rack to lower-middle position, place baking dish on rack, and heat oven to 200 degrees.

Pat chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Dredge chicken in flour to coat and shake off excess. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Brown chicken lightly on both sides, about 5 minutes total. Transfer chicken to dish in oven and cook until chicken registers 160 degrees on instant-read thermometer, 10 – 15 minutes.

While chicken bakes, add 1 more tablespoon oil to skillet and return to medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion, fennel, and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook until onion if softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in couscous, garlic, and pinch cayenne, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Stir in 3/4 cup of orange juice and broth, scraping up any browned bits. Bring to simmer, cover and let sit off heat until liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes.

Make drizzling oil: Whisk together remaining oil, remaining 1/4 cup orange juice, 2 tablespoons of cilantro or parsley, and pinch of cayenne. Set aside.

Gently fold remaining cilantro into couscous with fork and season with salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle oil over chicken and couscous when serving.

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Magazine of the Month August ’09: ATK American Classics

Just when you thought I would shut up about America’s Test Kitchen.

I could give you all kinds of reasons as to why the last MoM fell flat on its face. I couldn’t find the ingredients, I made some of the dishes and it was just “meh” and not “wow”, the best looking stuff was fish and the web admin won’t eat it, etc. That’s part of the problem with cooking from something you don’t know anything about. This month, I decided to give myself a break and cook from something I did know about. For August 2009, we will be exploring one of the special America’s Test Kitchen magazine editions, American Classics.

ATK American Classics 2009

It’s got freaking cupcakes on the front! I had to buy it!

Last night I already started with their Improved Peach Crumble, and it was delicious. I even brought some as part of my lunch today. I’m very excited, and I know ATK will get our MoM segments back on track.

America’s Test Kitchen will have “American Classics” on the shelves until October 19, so you’ll have plenty of time to run out and grab a copy.

Hell’s Kitchen – Series 6

HellsKitchenLogo

By now you’ve probably seen the train wreck that is Hell’s Kitchen. We’re now up to the sixth season of what is supposedly unscripted television.

Supposedly.

I’m not going to rehash a lot of it out here because I was forced to endure two hours of morons in a kitchen. But not just any run-of-the-mill moron. They’re morons with a dream — a dream of becoming an Executive Chef of another one of Ramsay’s failing restaurants, Araxi.

Let’s not rehash this out in some sort of play-by-play event where I break the episodes down for you. Let me just tell you this:

Comparing Hell’s Kitchen to Top Chef is like comparing Flava of Love to The Bachelor. All Ramsay needs now is to cut himself off at the knees and hang a gigantic, tacky clock from his neck.

Ramsay of Love!

And don’t forget the gold teeth.

Photo Redux: Warm Double-Chocolate Brownie Cakes

I’d like to think that my photography has improved since the beginning of the site. You may think differently, but I definitely think there’s been some improvement. My photos are something I’ve been working on, just because they’re fun and when you have a delicious dish accompanied by an ugly photo, there’s obviously less desire to make the dish. So, I want my photos to at least do the dish a little bit of justice.

Recently, I remade a dessert that we had featured in a previous Magazine of the Month, the Warm Double-Chocolate Brownie Cakes. Actually, this is a dessert that I still bake up a lot because it only takes 20 minutes of prep time, the ingredients are something I always have on hand, and they’re amazingly delicious. I thought I’d try out a little photographing redux, to see if I couldn’t provide better photos.

I think I picked a difficult one to start with. These brownie cakes are dark and moist inside with melted chocolate chunks, and the top is a glossy, cracked brownie top. After popping these open to try and take a nice shot, I just end up with this brown mass that really doesn’t do the dessert justice. I did try, so hopefully it’s at least not a turn off.

Warm Double Chocolate Brownie Cakes 1

This is a top down version, so you can see the crispy, cracked surface. I baked these a couple of days prior to the photos and kept them inside a sealed plastic bag. They keep quite nicely. To reserve, just pop them in the microwave for 30 seconds and serve with a little ice cream.

Warm Double Chocolate Brownie Cakes 2

Here’s a side view – you can see the ice cream starting to melt from the warm cake. It’s not the most elegant looking dessert, but the taste is fantastic. Chocolate lovers will be big fans!

Warm Double Chocolate Brownie Cakes 3

This one came out a little blurry, but I was trying to show the inside texture — very moist, with melted chocolate bits inside.

So there you have it, a photo redux! We don’t really get a lot of comments on this site but if you have any thoughts or tips, drop me an email (check the “Contact Us” button in the top left corner) or post a comment below.

~MM

Weeknight Cooking: 30 Minute Skillet Lasagna

I’ve bought a lot of cookbooks where the majority of recipes go untouched, and I know I’m not alone. I’ve never met a cookbook that I was 100% sold on.

Until now.

TheBest30MinuteRecipe

Shocked that it’s some 30-Minute thing? How about if I tell you it’s from America’s Test Kitchen?

Skillet Lasagna

Oh yeah, baby.

I scouted around for a group who was cooking this book, and I haven’t found one. If there was one, I would join it in a heartbeat. Heck, I’d even start one. (Anyone want to join?)

30-Minute Recipes have a bad track record. Most dishes just aren’t that good or require too many “storebought” components that make you feel as if you should have just ordered take out. I confess, this book does have a little bit of that, but not a ton. It’s minimal effort with delicious results and still retains ATK’s feel, including recipe explanations, descriptions and taste tests. And, even if I feel a little stuck up about adding a jarred sauce or pre-roasted chicken, I remember this is America’s Test Kitchen and they know what they’re doing. Taste tests have been done on a lot of their “shortcut ingredients” like supermarket tomato sauces. Their highest scored was “Patsy’s Marinara” but our money-conscious web admin was at the grocery store with me and said, “$7.50? For a jar of sauce? What about that one? (points) It’s $2.00! They’re all the same thing!” According to ATK they aren’t all the same, but we went with the number two taste test selection, Bertolli Tomato and Basil Pasta Sauce for $2.50 out of principle. 😛

Here’s their Skillet Lasagna. A mixture of beef and pork go into a pan with garlic and broken lasagna noodles and is topped with marinara and water. The mixture cooks for 20 minutes to allow the noodle pieces to absorb water and soften, then is topped with dolloped ricotta, Parmesan and fresh basil.

Yeah, it really is that easy.

Skillet Lasagna Plated

Skillet Lasagna
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, The Best 30-Minute Recipe

1 pound meatloaf mix
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt and ground black pepper
6 ounces curly-edged lasagna noodles (8 noodles), broken into 2-inch pieces
1 (26 ounce) jar tomato sauce, such as marinara (about 3 cups)
2 cups water
1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded
1 cup whole-milk ricotta
1/4 cup minced fresh basil

Cook meat in 12-inch nonstick skillet over high heat, breaking it into pieces with a wooden spoon, until fat renders, 3 – 5 minutes. Drain meat and return it to skillet.

Stir in garlic, pepper flakes and 3/4 teaspoon salt and cook over medium-high heat until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Sprinkle broken noodles into skillet, then pour in tomato sauce and water over top. Cover and cook, stirring often and adjusting heat as needed to maintain a simmer, until noodles are tender, about 20 minutes.

Off heat, stir in half of mozzarella and half of Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper. Dot heaping tablespoons of ricotta over noodles, then sprinkle with remaining mozzarella and Parmesan. Cover and let stand off heat until cheeses melt, 3 – 5 minutes. Sprinkle with basil before serving.

I give this dish a strong A grade for flavor and ease. And, if you want to mix it up a bit a week or two later, the book provides a variation with sausage and red bell pepper. That’s something else I really like about the book, is that they do provide a lot of options for switching things up.

Skillet Lasagna Plated

Blueberry Muffins with Streusel Topping

I’m trying to think of what I could possibly say that would do these muffins justice.

Blueberry Muffins with Streusel Topping

Nothing really comes to mind so I’ll let the picture speak for itself.

Since I whipped together the Ellie Krieger Apple Muffins, I’ve been on a muffin kick. They’re a great morning treat that goes well with coffee or tea or simply stuffed into your mouth a la cart. These muffins in particular are dreamy: The light and fluffy texture of the muffin is out of this world. Plus, there’s an added bonus — a simple, homemade blueberry jam is swirled into each muffin for a little extra goodness.

Blueberry Muffin Swirled Jam 2

This is another Cook’s Illustrated recipe that I am proud to share. If you want to cook and you’re looking for one source that never fails, Cook’s Illustrated is it.

I know you’re sick of hearing me say that, but I just can’t help myself. Last week I bought two more Cook’s Illustrated books (The Best 30-Minute Recipe and Baking Illustrated) and I really can’t wait to share what I’ve been cooking out of them. But first, these muffins.

Blueberry Muffins

Blueberry Muffins with Streusel Topping
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

Streusel Topping
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
Pinch table salt
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and warm

Muffins
2 cups fresh blueberries
1 1/8 cups sugar (8 ounces) plus 1 teaspoon
2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly (1/2 stick)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk
1 3/4 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. FOR THE TOPPING: Stir together sugar, brown sugar, salt, and flour in small bowl until combined. Drizzle with warm butter and toss with fork until evenly moistened and mixture forms large chunks with some pea-sized pieces throughout. Set aside.

2. FOR THE MUFFINS: Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Spray standard muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray. Bring 1 cup blueberries and 1 teaspoon sugar to simmer in small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, mashing berries with spoon several times and stirring frequently, until berries have broken down and mixture is thickened and reduced to ¼ cup, about 6 minutes. Transfer to small bowl and cool to room temperature, 10 to 15 minutes.

3. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in large bowl. Whisk remaining 11/8 cups sugar and eggs together in medium bowl until thick and homogeneous, about 45 seconds. Slowly whisk in butter and oil until combined. Whisk in buttermilk and vanilla until combined. Using rubber spatula, fold egg mixture and remaining cup blueberries into flour mixture until just moistened.

4. Divide batter equally among prepared muffin cups. Spoon teaspoon of cooked berry mixture into center of each mound of batter. Using chopstick or skewer, gently swirl berry filling into batter using figure-eight motion. Sprinkle streusel topping evenly over muffins.

Red Velvet Cake with Raspberries & Blueberries

I love making desserts. I’m pretty good at it and they’re so much fun to share. Who’s ever been angry with you for giving them cookies and cake? Even models and beauty queens will thank you, enjoy it, and barf it up in private later.

Just kidding.

Maybe.

This weekend I had a get together with some friends, which provided me with the opportunity to bake. Woo hoo!

Red Velvet Cake with Raspberries and Blueberries

From an old Bon Appetit magazine comes this summery, southern treat with just a tease of chocolate and the addition of fresh fruit. A friend suggested I should have also topped this with blackberries — a fantastic suggestion that I think we should all follow for next time.

I ended up not having enough food coloring for this — the original recipe calls for 1 tablespoon, but I only had a half. Then I just had to pray that my cakes didn’t turn out pink.

Pink Batter
Uh…

Thankfully, the cakes did come out red and the dessert was a huge hit. The cakes themselves were moist and delicious, and the addition of fruit with the cream cheese frosting was such a tasty touch. If you’re not a big baker, this is an easy cake to put together. It’s also an easy cake to make look beautiful, because blemishes can be covered up with frosting and fruit. (You can’t tell in the pictures, but one of my cakes sank a little bit in the center — I made that my bottom layer and just stuffed a little more fruit in between the cakes to fill it out.)

First Cake Layer - with berries & cream cheese frosting
Fruit is actually incorporated into the cake by sprinkling it between the layers, rather than just throwing it on top like an afterthought.

Red Velvet Cake with Raspberries and Blueberries
Adapted from Bon Appetit

CAKE
2 1/4 cups sifted cake flour (sifted, then measured)
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 tablespoon red food coloring
1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 large eggs

FROSTING
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
3 1/2-pint baskets fresh raspberries
3 1/2-pint baskets fresh blueberries

FOR CAKE:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour two 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 1/2-inch-high sides. Sift sifted flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into medium bowl. Whisk buttermilk, food coloring, vinegar, and vanilla in small bowl to blend.

Using electric mixer, beat sugar and butter in large bowl until well blended. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating until well blended after each addition. Beat in dry ingredients in 4 additions alternately with buttermilk mixture in 3 additions. Divide batter between prepared pans. Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 27 minutes. Cool in pans on racks 10 minutes. Turn cakes out onto racks; cool completely.

FOR FROSTING:
Beat cream cheese and butter in large bowl until smooth. Beat in vanilla. Add powdered sugar and beat until smooth. Place 1 cake layer, flat side up, on platter. Spread 1 cup frosting over top of cake. Arrange 1 basket raspberries and 1/2 basket blueberries atop frosting, pressing lightly to adhere. Top with second cake layer, flat side down. Spread remaining frosting over top and sides of cake. Arrange remaining berries decoratively over top of cake. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour before serving.)

Now, on the above photograph of the layering process, you can see that the cakes are pretty crumbly on the edges. When I frosted the sides, a lot of the crumbs came off and got all gooped up in the frosting and ended up not looking as spectacular as I wanted. (As an aside, I don’t think anyone cared — they just said, “Ohmygodcake!” And then we had a stampede.) What I should have done for cleaner sides is spread a “crumb” layer where a very thin layer of frosting goes on the sides to collect the crumbs, then stick it in the refrigerator for 15 – 20 minutes. Once that thin layer of frosting hardens, then I could have brought it back out and frosted the rest.

As they say, hind sight. 20/20.

I wanted to provide a really beautiful inside shot of the cake however, due to the aforementioned stampede, I ended up with more of a cake autopsy. Here it is, and the cake did turn out nice and (mostly) red.

Cake Autopsy
Scalpel… Forceps…

Not beautiful, but everyone was enjoying it and that’s better than having a pretty cake no one likes. Here’s the Bon Appetit photo, which looks a lot prettier:

Bon Appetit Red Velvet Cake

You won’t be disappointed with this one. The addition of the berries make it a very appropriate dessert for the summer.

Parmesan-Crusted Chicken with Arugula Salad

This post is quick and dirty, almost befitting of the dish — in that the dish is quick. It could be dirty if you decided to rub your chicken breasts all over the floor or the butt of your household pet, but it’s not recommended.

You’re welcome for that visual. It’s just part of the service I provide.

This dish is perfect for a quick, nutritious meal. It’s tremendously fast to make, makes very little mess and tastes pretty darn good, especially for the small amount of effort it takes to make it. It’s a very basic dish so you have all kinds of room to play and add oomph. You could probably add crumbled bacon on top of the breasts for a little something extra. Or some mild cheese. Whatever. The world is your oyster.

Parmesan Crusted Chicken With Arugula Salad

This photo is accurate to the written recipe, which came my way from the Food & Wine Recipe of the Day. It’s a simple chicken breast with a light dijon mustard and parmesan crust, and the accompanying salad is given the same dijon dressing. Now, I thought I’d hate the dijon dressing, because the idea of mustard on salad really disgusts me, but I actually liked it. Combining it with olive oil mutes the strong tang of the mustard, and the taste is a little more than above average, though not quite superb. It’s in the middle there somewhere. Playing with the ingredients is the key to making it yours. I’m still thinking about the bacon, and maybe melting a thin slice of mild cheese on top. Though it’s not in the picture, I added a little more veggies to the salad, as well as sourdough croutons.

Parmesan-Crusted Chicken with Arugula Salad
Courtesy of Food & Wine

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon chopped thyme
Four 6-ounce skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (1 1/2 ounces)
4 cups packed arugula leaves
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

Preheat the oven to 475°. In a small bowl, combine 2 teaspoons of the mustard with 2 teaspoons of the olive oil and the thyme. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper, then brush them all over with the mustard mixture. Pat 2 tablespoons of the Parmesan all over each breast. Transfer the chicken breasts to a rimmed baking sheet. Bake the chicken on the top shelf of the oven for about 15 minutes, or until just cooked through and nicely browned.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the remaining 1 teaspoon each of mustard and olive oil; stir in 1/2 teaspoon of water. Add the arugula and tomatoes, season with salt and pepper and toss well. Spoon the salad onto plates, top with the chicken and serve.

One serving 288 calories, 9.4 gm total fat, 3.1 gm saturated fat, 4 gm carb.

This falls down just slightly because it’s not something I would crave, but I wouldn’t be disappointed in eating it either. Clean up is very easy, making this a good choice for a weeknight or just a night when you’re on low energy.

Weeknight Dish: B+
Overall Rating: B

Peanut Butter Torte

Chocolate and peanut butter, combined together in one glorious creation. There’s not much better. Put me in front of a candy machine with a fistful of change and I’ll go for a Peanut Butter Cup every time. Even if you’re not a peanut butter fan it doesn’t matter because chocolate makes it better, showing peanut butter off like a frilly male dancer featuring his lady compatriot in the midst of a heated tango contest.

That’s a photoshop moment begging to be fulfilled, but I just don’t have the time. How about this, instead:

Peanut Butter Torte - Thumbs Up
Our Web Admin shows his appreciation for chocolate and peanut butter with a definite thumbs up.

For our Independence Day celebration, I put together Dorie Greenspan’s Peanut Butter Torte. Aside from the wonderfulness of chocolate and peanut butter, the best I can describe this is if Mr. Stay Puft and and Willy Wonka had a love child, this torte would be the product of that union.

Too much?

Peanut Butter Torte

Anyhoo, this rich dessert took me by surprise. The base of it is obviously peanut butter, as well as cream cheese. Based on those two ingredients, my first impression was that the body of the torte was going to be quite dense, but it’s actually incredibly light and almost fluffy by adding 2 cups of (whipped) whipping cream and sifted confectioners’ sugar.

Here’s the montage:

Peanut Butter Torte - Montage

You’ll see this in the instructions below but, first you whip up the whipped cream. Next you beat the cream cheese and confectioners’ sugar together, and add the peanut butter and some chopped peanuts. Lastly, you mix in that whipped cream (gently, by hand so as not to undo the whipping of the cream and mash everything into a dense paste). When that’s all done, you get this:

Torte Mixture

And this goes into a simple butter and Oreo crust.

Peanut Butter Torte
Adapted from Baking, From My Home to Yours

1 1/4 cups finely chopped salted peanuts
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg
1/2 cup mini chocolate chips
24 Oreo cookies, ground into fine crumbs
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Pinch of salt
2 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups slated peanut butter – crunchy or smooth, not natural
2 tablespoons milk
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9 inch springform pan and place it on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Toss 1/2 cup of the chopped peanuts, sugar, espresso powder, cinnamon and nutmeg in a small bowl. Set aside.

Put Oreo crumbs, melted butter and salt in another small bowl and stir until crumbs are moistened. Press crumbs evenly over bottom and up the sides of the springform pan (they should go up 2 inches). Freeze crust for 10 minutes, then bake crust for 10 minutes, transfer to a rack and let it cool completely.

Whip 2 cups of the cream until it holds medium peaks (see photo above to get an idea of what that should look like). Beat in 1/4 cup of confectioners’ sugar and whip unitl the cream holds medium-firm peaks. Scrape the cream into a bowl and refrigerate until needed.

Wipe out bowl and beat cream cheese with remaining 1 cup confectioners’ sugar on medium speed until mixture is satiny smooth. Beat in peanut butter, 1/4 cup of the chopped peanuts and the milk. Using a rubber spatula, gently stir in about 1/4 of the whipped cream, just to lighten the mousse. Still working with the spatula, stir in the crunchy peanut mixture, then gingerly fold in the remaining whipped cream. Scrape mousse into the crust mounding and smoothing the top. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight. (The original recipe says to refrigerate for 4 hours, but the mousse inside was just way too soft and goopy — give it a little longer to set.) Cover with plastic wrap as soon as the mousse firms.

To finish the torte: Put the chopped bittersweet chocolate in a heatproof bowl and set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Leave the bowl over the water just until the chocolate softens and starts to melt, about 3 minutes. Remove the bowl from the saucepan.

Bring the remaining 1/2 cup of cream to a boil. Pour the cream over the chocolate and, working with a spatula, very gently stir together the ganache until it is completely smooth and glossy. Pour the ganache over the torte, smoothing it with a spatula. Scatter the remaining 1/2 cup peanuts over the top and chill to set the topping – about 20 minutes. (Do not leave off the peanuts — the added crunch really makes the torte.)

When the ganache is firm, remove the sides of the springform pan. Refrigerate until ready and serve.

We quite liked this, though I thought there could have been more chocolate. My preference is to have a balance of chocolate and peanut butter and, in this case, the peanut butter ratio is a little higher than I would have liked. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t dislike it, I just think the chocolate and peanut butter should have been an even balance. Still, peanut butter fans will be very happy with this dessert. It’s a good casual treat this summer that won’t disappoint.

Peanut Butter Torte - Slice

Thomas Keller’s Macaroni Gratin

I have yet to share my trip to Bouchon restaurant in Las Vegas, a visit that left quite an impression on me. Lately, my culinary viewpoint has been shifting — I’ve been wanting so much more in my food, but have been too scared to attempt anything that calls for a little work.

Maybe I shouldn’t admit that, but I’m certain it’s obvious from the things I usually cook. I’ve said it before, but I feel it’s worth restating: After a full day at work, the last thing I want to do is get into a long and detailed cooking project. I’m hungry right then and there, and don’t want to wait. I know I’m not alone.

Whether or not you can blame me for being phobic about complicated meals is neither here nor there, because it’s finally caught up with me. I’ve been searching for a challenge and better food.

Macaroni Gratin - Plated #3

But how to define “better”? Everyone has their own idea of what that should mean and rightfully so, as food is such a personal experience. For me, I simply wanted a dish I could relate to, but also gave me a foodgasm (for lack of better wording, I make them up). I wanted something that tasted delicious, and I needed to get over my fear of cooking something fussy.

Thomas Keller is most famous for the fabulously fussy, high class restaurant, the French Laundry. CC could tell you all about the experience, I’ve never been. It looks interesting… but I can tell it’s just not for me. So when I walked into Bouchon, clad in mirrors, white linens, dim lighting, and a laid back atmosphere with refined comfort food, I felt like I had found my soul mate in dining. Keller often jokes that he opened Bouchon so he’d have somewhere to eat after cooking at the French Laundry all day. French bistro dishes are something he’s had a passion for all his life, and is the kind of food he also gravitates to. Our dining experience was fantastic and as soon as I got home from my trip, I ordered the Bouchon book.

And then it sat on my shelf looking really sad and pathetic for about another month. That’s how long it took me to psych myself up to actually make something out of it.

Macaroni Gratin

I’ve had lots of macaroni and cheese, and I believe I’ve eaten the boxed kind once. Maybe twice. I don’t care for it. The kind my mom used to make has a lot of onion, pepper and, dare I say, Velveeta “cheese”. Yes, with the quotation marks. The funny thing is that I actually really like it (we liked weird things in the 70’s — don’t even get me started on architecture and interior design of that era). What makes mom’s so delicious and wonderful was not just the sauciness, but the onion and pepper. Keller’s Macaroni Gratin capitalizes on that and takes it to a whole new level.

The base of the dish is a white Mornay Sauce, which is a pretty common sauce with cheese added. Most surprising is that there’s more cream than cheese. For a macaroni and cheese dish, you’d think it was the other way around. I spent a half hour just letting the cream simmer, then added only 1/2 cup of grated Emmenthaler at the very end.

Mornay Sauce

Mornay Sauce
Adapted from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon

4 tablespoons butter
2/3 cup diced Spanish onion
Kosher Salt
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 2/3 cups milk
1 1/3 cups cream
1/2 tsp freshly ground peppercorns
3 cloves
1/2 cup Emmenthaler cheese

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and a pinch of salt and cook slowly, stirring occasionally, for 2 – 3 minutes or so the onion is translucent. Sprinkle in the flour and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly so that the roux doesn’t burn or color. Whisking constantly, add the milk and cream and whisk until fully incorporated. Bring to a simmer, whisking, then add the bay leaf, peppercorns and cloves. Bring back to a very gentle simmer. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, whisking occasionally, reaching into the corners of the pan for about 30 minutes. If the sauce begins to scorch, pour it into a clean pan – don’t scrape the bottom of the pan.

Remove the sauce from the heat and season to taste with salt, a grating of nutmeg, and a pinch of white pepper. Strain the sauce, add the cheese and whisk to melt.

Makes 3 cups.

Even those of us who have only enjoyed boxed mac and cheese know what to do at this point: Assemble!

Macaroni Gratin

Macaroni Gratin
Adapted from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon

8 ounces small elbow macaroni
3 cups Mornay Sauce
Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper
Nutmeg
1/2 cup grated Emmenthaler cheese
3 tablespoons panko

Put a rack in the top third of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees F.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook until tender; drain. Rinse under cold water and drain on paper towels.

Add macaroni to Mornay Sauce and mix well. Season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Pour into an 8-cup gratin dish, 9×15 inch oval, or individual baking dishes. Sprinkle the top with cheese and panko.

Place the gratin dish on a baking sheet in order to catch any sauce that may bubble over, then place in the oven. Turn the heat down to 375 degrees F and bake for 15 – 20 minutes, or until the mixture is hot and bubbling around the edges. If the gratin has not browned, turn on the broiler to brown the top.

I made a few other things for our 4th of July celebration, but this was the clear winner. The creaminess was unbeatable and I love the way the pepper and onion are brought out. Crisping up the panko and cheese on top gives the dish that fantastic texture — if you don’t do that, you’ll just have lots of cream and it may come off as goopy after a while. The next day, we reheated this in the oven on 300 degrees F for about 20 minutes and it retained the creaminess.

Macaroni Gratin - Plated #1

Dish rating: A