If you're not familiar with the blog Ideas in Food, you probably should be. They're not your typical food blog, in that they don't really post highly detailed posts about the execution of recipes (though there are recipes)... they post most often about, well, ideas about cooking. Ideas that can be a little bit weird to the average home chef, like this post about watermelon breast, or this one about a corn omelet. Not stuff I'd necissarily ever want to replicate (though Michael Natkin has a really interesting riff on that seared watermelon idea), and many of their experiments are directed more towards professional chefs who are pushing the boundaries, but it's still quite interesting to see the thought process laid out. However, not everything they do requires an immersion circulator and a centrifuge... they also bring their culinary knowledge to bear on humble classics like macaroni and cheese, a recipe for which you can find in their recent book, Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work (the recipe is also available in PDF form here).
So what exactly can highfalutin fancy pants food science bring to a dish as seemingly "settled" as macaroni and cheese? It's just cheese, cream, and pasta... what else do you need? Well they have two big ideas in play in this recipe. The first of which is soaking pasta:
Yeah, I know, right? You soak beans, not pasta... so what's going on here? Well it's related to that Harold McGee article about how you don't need a giant pot of water to cook pasta. As long as you have enough to hydrate the pasta, you can cook it in much less water than is traditional, so your pasta takes less time and energy to make, but you have to keep stirring it so that it doesn't stick... so not necessarily a trade off that seems worth it. Aki and Alex handle this by separating the hydration and the cooking with a cold water pre-soak of the pasta. While the soaking takes an hour or two, it gets the pasta to a "just before al dente" phase that really speeds up cooking, which you can drain and keep it in your fridge for a 2-3 days... and since the starch has been washed off of the surface of the pasta you don't need to worry about it sticking together. In other recipes they take this a step further and use the soak to infuse flavors into the pasta (like bbq sauce), but in this one it just gets your pasta elbows to the perfect state of doneness for use in macaroni and cheese without ever boiling water. It was perfectly cooked when it came out of the oven, and really quite impressive. While I don't know how often I'm really going to set aside an hour to soak pasta, I still think it's pretty awesome how well it works.
The second big idea, which I've mentioned before, is using a can of evaporated milk instead of cream as the dairy element. As someone who has curdled some dairy dishes (see the link above), I think this idea is fairly genius. You're getting a fraction of the fat compared to heavy cream, but it's just as stable and resistant to curdling. In addition, the slightly caramelized flavor of evaporated milk really works in this application, pairing nicely with the cheese and cayenne. I'm a big fan
So a pretty cool recipe, and a pretty cool cookbook. Would I make this macaroni and cheese again? Probably not exactly, but I learned a lot in the making and I'll certainly use these ideas moving forward... and what more of a cookbook can you ask than that? Expect to see a couple more posts about my experiences with their recipes in the coming weeks.