Whereas November and December are filled with the excitement of holidays, January with the hope of change (healthy eating; more exercise!), and March with the joy of the coming Spring, February comes merely with the fatigue of winter. We try to enliven February with the romance of St. Valentine’s day, but, let’s be honest: nothing good comes from February. It is this time of year, above all, when I crave hearty, comfort food. I need sustenance to make it through.
In general, comfort food tends to be, let us say, not the best for you. It is, as I tell my kids, “sometimes food” not “every day food.” Even still, I try my best to make sure my comfort food fits within my eating priorities. My diet choices are heavily influenced by Michael Pollan’s writings, and I use him as a guide, particularly when choosing my not-as-good for me foods.
For example, he advises: Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you cook it yourself. Or: If it’s a plant, eat it; if it’s made in a plant, don’t. And: Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can't pronounce.
The recipes that follow satisfy those criteria. They are comforting, rib-sticking, and happy-making and not loaded with unpronounceable ingredients.
Macaroni and Cheese
I know it seems faster to just buy the box on the shelf, but resist that temptation. Homemade mac and cheese does not take much longer than the boxed stuff. This is a weeknight dish. You can make the cheese sauce in almost the amount of time it takes to cook the pasta. Trust me it’s worth it.
A note on the sauce: please do not be intimidated by the béchamel. A béchamel is not very difficult (and I give my slightly unconventional way of making it below). It might take you a couple of times to get it perfectly lump free, but don’t sweat the lumps! No one will care, and if it is too lumpy, you can always strain the sauce before adding in cheese. Having a béchamel in your repertoire will serve you in many recipes. You can substitute béchamel for cheese to make a traditional Lasagne Bolognese, or any kind of baked pasta. You can use it to make Southern white gravy for sausage or to pour over chicken fried steak. Adding cheese (like below) turns béchamel into a mornay sauce that you can serve over chicken or, my favorite, a Hot Brown.
This is a recipe I have adapted from Alice Waters.
- 1 lb (1 box) of short pasta of your choice (we like gemelli, orecchiette, penne, and farfalle best)
- 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
- 4 tablespoons of all purpose flour
- 4 cups of milk (preferably whole)
- 8 oz of grated cheeses (your choice, see variations below)
- Salt and pepper to taste
1. Put four tablespoons of butter into a small saucepan (one that holds 2-3 quarts) over medium heat.
2. While the butter is melting, put on a pot of water to boil.
3. Add four tablespoons of all-purpose flour to the melted butter and whisk to combine completely. This is your roux. Let it cook for about 2 minutes, whisking constantly. Do not let it brown. This helps lose the flour taste.
4. Next, you will slowly add four cups of milk. The conventional method has you slowly adding the milk as you whisk it in. Make sure to whisk constantly as you pour in the milk. My method is to add in the milk 1⁄2 cup at a time, and combine the milk completely into the flour before adding more (see the photos). After you have added two cups with this method, you can pour in the second two cups and whisk well.
5. Allow the milk to cook over medium heat. Whisk periodically, but not constantly. Be careful if you go too long without whisking, you might start to have milk/flour stick at the bottom, creating lumps. As the milk heats, it will thicken. Cook until the sauce resembles a thick cream; it will slightly coat the back of a spoon.
6. Meanwhile, when the water comes to a boil, generously salt the water and add the pasta to cook. Cook the pasta until it is just al dente. Al dente means that the pasta still has some bite but is not crunchy and is cooked through. You want it to be just al dente because it will continue cooking in the sauce. Usually, pasta boxes label the al dente point at 2 minutes before the normal cooking point.
7. When the pasta is done, save 1 cup of pasta cooking water and then drain the pasta. Do not rinse. You can let it sit until the sauce is done.
8. Once your béchamel has reached the desired consistency, turn off the heat. Whisk in your cheeses. The residual heat from the béchamel should melt the cheese.
9. Add salt and pepper to taste.
10. Add the pasta to the sauce (if your saucepan is too small, pour both back into the pasta pot). Cover the pot and let the pasta and sauce sit for about 4-5 minutes. The pasta will absorb the sauce. If the sauce thickens past your liking, you can add some of the reserved pasta water.
Serve and enjoy!
1. Change your cheese: I always use two cheeses in my sauce (4 oz of each). My go-to, kid-
friendly combination is a mild cheddar and a sharp cheddar. You can add any combination. I like gruyere, emmantaler, smoked cheddar, gouda, or even blue cheese. I love to add boursin (which Chef Ludo Lefebvre called the French velveeta), and will often add a tablespoon or two in addition to the 8 ounces of hard cheese. You could even make a mac and cheese with a total 4 oz of boursin if you want.
2. Add ingredients: I’ll admit—I’m a purest. I have never added anything to my mac and cheese. But I bet that peas or some sort of pre-cooked ham/prosciutto/pancetta/bacon would be delicious here.
3. Make into a baked mac and cheese: To make a baked gratin, you will want to pour the pasta/sauce mixture directly into a buttered 9 X 13 baking pan, instead of letting it sit in the pot. Cook about 1 1⁄2 cups of bread crumbs (any kind, but I like panko) in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil until they turn light golden brown (you can do this on the stove top or in the oven at 350 degrees). Pour the breadcrumb mixture over the pasta and bake at 400 for about 15 minutes or until the top is golden and bubbly.
(Italian Hot Chocolate)
I lived briefly in Italy after law school. Once the warm fall days changed into crisp winter days, I discovered the magical concoction known as cioccolata calda. While cioccolata calda might translate to “hot chocolate” in English, it is not the same creature. Italian hot chocolate is deeply chocolately, lightly sweetened, and thickened almost to the consistency of a pudding (but not so thick that you need a spoon). One day, after extolling the amazing-ness that is Cioccolata Calda to the woman from whom I rented a room, she showed me how to make it at home. I have fiddled a bit with her recipe over the years (more chocolate, less sugar), and I think I have found the perfect Cioccolata Calda for my palate. You can play with the amounts of chocolate to sugar if you prefer something sweeter.
The Ingredients (per serving*):
- 6 oz of milk
- 2 heaping tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder**
- 1 1⁄2 tablespoons of granulated sugar
- 1/8 tsp of corn starch***
- Heat milk in a small saucepan over medium heat.
- When the milk begins to steam (but not simmer or boil), add dry ingredients. Whisk well to combine.
- Continue to cook over medium, stirring frequently, until the chocolate is hot and thickened to your chosen consistency. I like to tip the pan a bit, and when I see thick chocolate forming on the bottom, I know it’s ready.
* You can increase the amounts proportionately, but I recommend keeping the cornstarch to 1/8 tsp-1/4 tsp. I use about 1/4 tsp when I make a batch for four of us. It will still thicken nicely.
** I recommending using the good stuff. I like Dagoba’s unsweetened drinking chocolate, as well as Equal Exchange.
*** Cornstarch is a thickening agent here.