I'm saying "yum!" now, but this week in The Svelte Gourmet test kitchen did NOT run as smoothly as usual. Last week, as you may remember, I blogged about eating at home and sending in your favorite "not-so-svelte" recipes for a makeover. Many of you jumped on the opportunity to send me scrambling! And I'll tell you, this one was certainly a challenge.
The suggestion for a lightened version of mac 'n cheese came from Amanda Cook, creator of one of my favorite blogs, Vintage Savoir Faire. Taking a cue from her tag line, I tried my best to make my great-grandmothers proud! But it wasn't easy...
So first, let's break it down. What is macaroni and cheese? Well, first there's macaroni. Pasta. Not svelte, especially when consumed in large quantities, since one ounce has 100 calories. And cheese. Oh, glorious cheese! Cheese is quite good for you if you exercise portion control -- but just one ounce (yes, ONE!) of most cheeses packs a whopping 100 calories. So what do we have? A dish based solely on pasta and cheese (each 100 calories per ounce). And I promised you I'd try to keep it under 200 calories per serving, so already you can see the challenge!
Since Amanda didn't have a specific recipe in mind and there are a million ways to make this traditional dish, I browsed some of my favorite cooking websites -- both gourmet and home style -- to figure out some common themes with mac 'n cheese. Here's what I found to be average for most of the recipes that serve 8 as a side dish (1/2 to 1 cup serving size):
1. 2-3 cups of cheese (one TV chef's recipe had 6 cups of cheese -- for 6 servings! Ahhh!)
2. At least 4 tablespoons of butter (at 100 calories per tablespoon!)
3. A cup of whole milk or sometimes heavy cream (gasp!)
4. 4 tablespoons of flour (often cooked with the butter to make a roux)
5. Varying amounts of breadcrumbs
6. Typically 8-12 ounces of pasta
7. About half the recipes included at least 2 eggs
So let's say that this is our recipe. Calculating this conservatively (with 2 1/2 cups of cheese, milk instead of cream, etc.), I get 433 calories and 20 grams of fat per serving! For a side dish! Does your recipe resemble this one? Yikes!
So how in the world am I supposed to make a dish that has virtually NOTHING healthy in it "svelte?" Let's just say I started on Sunday and we've had failed mac 'n cheese every night this week. But I never give up!
I started the week fully believing I could perform miracles. Let's just take all the bad stuff out, add some healthy (and sneaky!) substitutions, and OF COURSE it will taste authentic. Makes sense, right?! And of course I have to make it gourmet. That's what I was going for originally, so my first version starred Gruyere and white truffle oil. YUM! At least that's what I hoped. Trying to make a roux with whole wheat flour just wasn't a good idea. The Gruyere is usually a stand-out flavor, but it was overshadowed by the faulty roux. The truffle oil added a nice touch, but that was about the only redeeming quality. NEXT!
OK, so the next night, humbled, I went back to the old standbys. No more showboating. I have to get it right this time! So I went with cheddar, but instead of a lot of regular cheddar, I opted for considerably less "extra sharp" cheddar. I thought the best way to get it to coat the pasta, since I didn't have that much cheese to work with, was to make a cheese sauce. So off I went, heating the milk (I skipped the roux after the first incident!), and melting the cheese. I wanted to use whole grain pasta, since you know I prefer whole grains over those stripped of their fiber. Oh, and I thought a little crushed red pepper would give it a nice pop of flavor.
Well. What I had this time was what tasted like chili pepper and wheat, with maybe a hint of cheese somewhere in there. Dry as a bone, too. Where did all the cheese sauce go?!?! Foiled again!
One more shot...I figured if it didn't work this time, I would have to just tell you to eat less (or none!) of the real stuff. That would have gone over like a lead balloon, I'm sure! So I had to do a little compromising. After all, you're looking for comfort food, and I really wanted to deliver.
Tonight, my friends, I had success! I loved the end result and Keith said it tasted like real mac 'n cheese! It was the perfect texture, full of flavor, and not at all dry! And get ready for this -- it has less than half the calories and a quarter of the fat of our traditional recipe above! At only 195 calories and 5 grams of fat per 3/4 cup serving (that's big!), consider Macaroni & Cheese made over! Now promise me that you'll read the whole recipe and don't be alarmed by the secret ingredient! I'll explain at the end!
The Svelte Gourmet Macaroni & Cheese
7 oz elbow or shell pasta (NOT whole wheat)
4 cups cauliflower florets, roughly chopped
1 1/2 cups lowfat (2%) shredded cheddar or cheese blend (I used lowfat 4-cheese Mexican blend and it was fabulous!)
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan
2/3 cup 2% milk (skim would make the fat and calories even lower!)
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp butter, melted
2 tbsp panko bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Boil pasta in salted water until al dente. Drain well. Steam cauliflower florets until very soft, drain. Let pasta and cauliflower cool a bit while you prepare the other ingredients. Shred the cheese if it's not pre-shredded. Beat the milk, egg and salt together in a small bowl. Mix the melted butter with the panko in another bowl.
Mash the cauliflower with a potato masher, a whisk, or whatever you have handy. Mix it with the pasta until well combined, being careful not to break up the noodles. Take a pinch of each of the cheeses and toss them with the panko/butter. Set aside. Combine the rest of the cheese with the pasta and cauliflower. Spray the bottom and sides of your casserole dish lightly with spray butter, then spread the mixture evenly in your casserole dish. Pour the milk/egg/salt mixture over the top. With your mixing spoon, carefully stir and fold until the milk mixture is combined with the pasta/cauliflower. Sprinkle with the panko/butter/cheese mixture and bake, uncovered, for 30-40 minutes or until the top just starts to brown. Voila!
OK, hold on. Who said anything about Macaroni-Cauliflower & Cheese? That's cheating! But trust me on this, you will not be able to taste the cauliflower at all. I had it in all three versions, and despite how terrible the first two were, Keith had no idea there were veggies in any of it. The bite of the cauliflower disappears and it melts into that lovely, cheesy, custardy texture that you're looking for. Try it! I think you'll be surprised. It adds volume to the dish with negligible calories, and you won't even know it's there! Magic!
Is this version as good as the "real thing?" Some may think so, some may not. But try it and then ask yourself this -- is the fattening one really worth it? 433 calories and 20 grams of fat? Maybe for a special dinner, but at least with this new one, you can enjoy it more than once a year without the guilt!
I truly hope you enjoy this recipe -- I wouldn't have dared attempt mac 'n cheese if it weren't for Amanda's suggestion, and I hope you all continue to share your suggestions and ideas with us! Thank you, Amanda!
For more "magic" recipes, try The Svelte Gourmet: A Month of Main Courses cookbook, available at www.thesveltegourmet.com/products.html.
Please join me for a cookbook signing and complimentary refreshments on Thursday, March 18th at 6:30 p.m. at Silver Belles of Charleston! For details, please click here.