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
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

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