Monday, April 28, 2014

Mac & Cheese (In the category of Mean What you Say.)

My goal of entering #12Contests, one for each month this year, has provided a greater challenge than I expected. January and February went pretty smoothly; I lost both of those contests (no surprise, and I'll be posting the novel soon...just waiting for one more editor to provide feedback). I haven't lost the March contest yet, but I'm sure I will. I believe the contest sponsors will announce the winners in June. In March I began writing a short story to submit to one of several potential short story contests with April deadlines, figuring I had plenty of time to write and edit a story of 3,000 to 5,000 words in length.

I knew I was in trouble 20 pages in when I had blown the top off the word count cap and still had two-thirds of the story to write. Then the story stalled (ironic, given that the working title is "There They Go"). Like an old Thunderbird, it stopped right where it was and no amount of cursing, pushing, pulling, or kicking provided the momentum needed to get it going again. April began to slide away, and my contest-of-the-month aspirations faded with it.

Thank goodness for Twitter! As my hopes dimmed to meet any sort of April contest deadline, I got wind of a Mac & Cheese Cook Off happening in my community this past Sunday, a fundraiser for a Twitter friend's church. 
Mise En Place
Before I continue, I should note that this #12Contests idea is mine and mine alone. I created the rules, and Rule #1 is (because I'm clever this way) I can change the rules anytime I please. Writing contests? Sure, I guess when I started the hashtag I meant 12 writing contests: poetry, fiction, non-fiction. I really didn't care which. I just wanted to put it out there and see what happened. One can learn much from the process of contests, and I felt ready to learn it. I schooled my ego to hold the lowest of expectations -- my point was entering, not winning. My goal, to create more focused, better edited writing. I didn't expect to have trouble with the deadlines. After all, I was coming off a successful run of #52Weeks of consecutive blog posts and I wrote a novel in 30 days last November because the I liked the challenge of the deadline. I assumed #12Contests would be a breeze after that.

Then the story stalled. I finally got it moving again, but not in time to make the April 30 deadline or edit it down to the 6,000 word count maximum. That's where the Macaroni & Cheese Cook Off saved the day. I had not planned on recipe writing as a means to the #12Contests goal, but desperate times call for desperate measures. By quickly rationalizing that publishing a recipe actually did count as writing something, I decided to enter the cook off, publish the recipe, and blog the results. April's contest -- check.

This is a previously unpublished recipe because I don't use a recipe to make macaroni and cheese. It's the first food I taught myself to cook; I loved it most. These days, I prefer a five-cheese blend, and I've broken away from the elbow macaroni stereotype. I should note that I did not win Mac & Cheese Cook Off with this recipe, but I received much praise nonetheless, and my 10" x 13" Pyrex casserole dish was satisfyingly empty by the time the votes were counted.

Here's a truth I did not expect to learn: I get far more nervous about entering my cooking into a contest than I do about entering my words.

Berly's Contest-Worthy but Not Award-Winning 5-Cheese Macaroni & Cheese.


Pasta and Sauce

  • 1-lb. box of dried pasta (penne, mini penne, rotini, elbow, mini shells...whatever you like) cooked al dente to box's directions and drained.
  • 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
  • 4 tablespoons of flour
  • 4 cups of 2% milk or half-n-half (they're your calories, you decide which one you prefer)
  • 1/8 teaspoon of dry mustard
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon of white pepper
  • 2 teaspoons of salt (or to taste)
  • 4 ounces of cream cheese
  • 8 ounces of sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 8 ounces of white Vermont cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 8 ounces of Swiss cheese, shredded
  • 8 ounces of Parmesan cheese, shredded.
  • 1 cup of Parmesan-flavored Goldfish crackers
  • 1 cup of bread crumbs
  • 1 tablespoon of melted butter
  • 3/4 cup of reserved combined shredded cheeses
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all the shredded cheeses. Remove 3/4 cup of combined cheese and set aside for the topping.

Prepare the pasta to al dente following the directions on the package. Drain and set aside (butter to keep from sticking if desired). Do. Not. Overcook. The. Pasta.

Thoroughly butter the inside of a 10" x 13" casserole dish. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

For the sauce, over low heat, melt 4 tbsp. of butter in a large saucepan. Whisk in 4 tbps. of flour, combining until smooth. Add the dried mustard, white pepper and 2 tsp. of salt. Whisk continuously until the roux begins to bubble and thicken. Whisk in the milk (or half-n-half, whichever you went with) and stir until smooth. (Congrats! You just made bechamel sauce!) Continue whisking until the sauce begins to simmer and thicken. As soon as the sauce begins to simmer and thicken, add half of the combined cheese (not including the 3/4 c. that you set aside for the topping) and half of the cream cheese and stir until smooth and creamy. Taste the sauce and adjust salt and pepper to taste. Add the nutmeg. Set the sauce aside. (Congrats! You just turned your bechamel into mornay sauce...and you thought you didn't know French cooking.)

Drain the pasta and place it in the greased casserole dish. Add the other half of the shredded cheese and the other half of the cream cheese to the hot pasta and stir well. Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta and stir to combine. Cover the casserole dish with aluminum foil and bake for 25 minutes. While the pasta and sauce bake, prepare the topping.

Combine the Goldfish crackers, bread crumbs, and melted butter in a food processor until... well... crumbly. Empty the crumb mixture into a bowl, and stir in that reserved 3/4 c. of shredded cheese and salt/pepper to taste (start w/ 1/4 tsp. of each and work your way up). Spread the mixture evenly across the top of the pasta and sauce. Bake uncovered for an additional 10-15 minutes until bubbly and golden brown. Place under a broiler for a few minutes (and watch it closely) if necessary to get the desired brownness. Serve hot and bubbling.

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