Skillet mac and cheese 

Macaroni and cheese is pretty much the greatest food in the entire world. If you disagree, you’re probably reading the wrong blog. For those of you that haven’t just hit the ‘back’ button, I present to you one of my own personal favorite recipes. This particular baked mac recipe is nothing new, but it represents quite a lot of experimenting and tweaking to get the texture, sauciness, and cheese mix just so. All of the magic takes place in a single skillet, which means fewer dishes to wash and more quality time to spend gloating over the fact that you made this all by yourself.

Skip to the short version

This is where all the magic happens.

This is where all the magic happens.

” It will serve three normal humans or two greedy oinkers “

Everybody has their own preference for the way they like their macaroni and cheese prepared. I don’t personally like a ton of sauce; I prefer a nice crusty top and lots of stretchy cheesiness with only a modest amount of sauce, and that’s what this recipe is designed to accomplish. If you want more sauce and less pasta, double the cheese sauce part of the recipe.

The cheese mix is a critical part of this recipe and can be adjusted depending on your tastes. I have tried dozens of different cheeses with varying degrees of success, and I’ve settled on gruyère, mozzarella, and asiago as my go-to combination. Gruyère is the headliner and checks all the boxes when it comes to desired cheese behavior. Mozzarella’s job is to provide creaminess, stretch, and a lovely browned, bubbly crust. Asiago is there to add back some of cheese flavor that was given up as a result of including mozzarella, and also because it’s awesome. If you want less cheese flavor, replace the gruyère and asiago with something milder, like jack or colby. As much as I like cheddar, I don’t recommend it. Cheddar always seems to end up grainy and oily no matter how carefully I handle it; the gruyère/mozzarella/asiago mix is much more forgiving.

As usual, I have no reason to include this picture. I just like looking at cheese.

As usual, I have no reason to include this picture. I just like looking at cheese.

As a side dish, this recipe will serve perhaps five reasonable, polite individuals who don’t mind sharing. As a main course, it will serve three normal humans or two greedy oinkers.


Ingredients

Part 1: The sauce

  • 1 tbsp butter (Yes, of course I mean real butter. No margarine. Don’t be silly.)
  • 1 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1.5 cups grated gruyère
  • 1.5 cups grated mozzarella

Part 2: Everything else

  • 8oz pasta (cooked al dente)
  • 1 cup grated gruyère
  • 1 cup grated mozzarella
  • 1 cup grated asiago


Other stuff you’ll need

  • an oven-safe skillet, preferably cast iron
  • a whisk
  • extra butter, flour, and milk for when you screw up the sauce


Directions

Before you do anything else, preheat your oven to 350 degrees F and cook the 8oz of pasta so that it’s ready to go when you need it. The choice of pasta is entirely yours, but I prefer stouter stuff like large elbows or cellentani. It has to stand up to being stirred and baked without falling apart, and ideally it will be good at trapping cheese sauce. Absolutely do not overcook the pasta or you will regret it – go for al dente or even slightly more firm just to be safe.

If you rinse your pasta with water after cooking it, somewhere a baby panda will die.

If you rinse your pasta with water after cooking it, somewhere a baby panda will die.


Part 1: The sauce

This part can be tricky until you get the hang of it. Regulating the heat correctly is a challenge, and your arm will probably get tired from all the whisking as well. The good news is that you’ll know pretty early if you’ve messed things up, and most of the time all you will have wasted is a little butter and flour. If you do end up screwing the pooch – and chances are you will the first couple times – don’t get discouraged. Just dump out the failed stuff, pretend like you did it on purpose, and start over. You’ll get there soon enough.

Preheat your skillet to medium heat and add the tablespoon of butter. You want the butter to sizzle and melt completely in about 20 seconds. Faster than that and the pan is too hot, slower than that and the pan isn’t hot enough. As soon as the butter is melted, sprinkle in the tablespoon of flour and whisk constantly for 90 seconds. Make sure there aren’t any dead zones where the butter/flour mixture is allowed to sit still. When the 90 seconds is up, remove the skillet from heat and continue whisking for another minute or two as the skillet cools down. If you’ve done this part right, you will have a creamy light brown paste about the same shade as lightly toasted bread. Congratulations, you’ve just made roux.

As you continue to whisk, add a couple drops of milk to the roux. The milk should NOT sizzle at all; if it does, your skillet is still too hot. Continue to whisk the roux for another minute and try again. Once you are able to add the milk without it sizzling, put the skillet back on the burner, set to low heat, and slowly whisk in the entire cup of milk. (This part can be made a little easier by heating up the milk separately before adding it to the roux, but I’m usually too lazy to bother.) The milk/roux mixture should be hot enough to steam but it should definitely not bubble excessively or foam up. If you get too aggressive with the heat in this step you will scald the milk and end up with gross chunks of cottage cheese in your sauce. Whisk the milk/roux mixture constantly for at least five minutes, until it starts to thicken. You are going for a consistency somewhere between gravy and melted ice cream. And just like that you’ve made bechamel.

If you’ve made it this far without your arm falling off, I applaud you. You are now ready to begin the fun part.

Take a bit of the grated gruyère and sprinkle it into the bechamel, stirring slowly until the cheese has melted completely and disappeared into the sauce. Now sprinkle a bit of mozzarella in, stirring well, then go back to the gruyère, etc. (Note: The asiago does not belong in this step – it is only used in Part 2, below.) Continue alternating cheeses until you get a nice, stretchy, cheesy consistency. Remove from heat, give it a taste, and add salt and pepper as necessary.

Is there anything better than cheese sauce? Nope, there really isn't.

Is there anything better than cheese sauce? Nope, there really isn’t.


Part 2: Everything else

Ditch the whisk and grab a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. Grab handfuls of the cooked pasta and sprinkle it into the cheese sauce, stirring gently as you go and making sure every piece of pasta is evenly coated. Resist the urge to dump the entire batch of pasta into the sauce at once; much of the pasta will be stuck together and needs to be separated before it can be properly sauced. (I’m not sure if ‘sauced’ is a verb or not, but I’m going with it.)

Juuuuust the right amount of sauce.

Juuuuust the right amount of sauce.

Toss together the grated gruyère, mozzarella, and asiago, and dump it liberally on top of the pasta mixture. If three cups of cheese seems like too much to you, it’s probably time to rethink your life choices. Just keep adding cheese until it seems like too much, then add some more. (On an interesting side note, this rule also applies to many other foods such as peanut butter, frosting, and bacon. Not all at the same time though.)

All cheeses grate and small.

All cheeses grate and small.

Put the skillet in the oven, set the timer for 25 minutes, and try not to go insane with hunger while you wait. Start peeking into the oven at the 20 minute mark – once the top is browned and bubbly, your mac and cheese is done. Serve, enjoy, and schedule an appointment with a cardiologist right away.


This is pretty much the best thing that comes out of my oven.

This is pretty much the best thing that comes out of my oven.



tl;dr

Skillet mac and cheese

Ingredients

Part 1

  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1.5 cups grated gruyère
  • 1.5 cups grated mozzarella

Part 2

  • 8oz pasta (cooked al dente)
  • 1 cup grated gruyère
  • 1 cup grated mozzarella
  • 1 cup grated asiago


Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cook pasta and set aside. Preheat skillet to medium heat and add the tablespoon of butter. Add flour and whisk constantly for 90 seconds. Remove from heat and continue whisking until roux is blond. Slowly incorporate milk into roux over low heat and whisk for 5 minutes, until thickened. Whisk in alternating handfuls of gruyère and mozzarella, salt and pepper to taste. Fold cooked pasta into cheese sauce. Toss together gruyère, mozzarella, and asiago and spread evenly over top. Bake for 25 minutes or until top is golden brown.



See also


sorry gtg can't write any more, mac and cheese is ready

sorry gtg can’t write any more, mac and cheese is ready


Portola Valley Lobster Shack

meter-great-Portola Valley Lobster Shack is nestled away in a corner of Ladera Shopping Center along Alpine Road in, you guessed it, Portola Valley. Confusingly, this restaurant is sometimes called Old Port Lobster Shack, because that’s the name listed on the website. There are also two other locations listed under the Old Port moniker, but only one of the three follows this naming convention.

Yeah, I know. My head hurts too.

“Note: Flavor molecules may not actually exist”

Weird naming quirks aside, Portola Valley Lobster Shack is a wonderful little place. It’s quintessentially New-England-ish in its decor and food choices, but unlike many establishments actually located in New England, the people at Portola Valley are polite and friendly. What’s that, you say? I’m implying that people on the east coast are rude? No, I’m not implying that at all, I’m stating it as a fact. Hey, I used to live there so shaddap. (There, how was that for east coast charm?)

The menu at Portola Valley is a joy to browse. It’s one of those places where you just want to say, “One of everything please” and eat yourself into a coma. On my first visit I wanted to try the clam chowder because, well, how else are you supposed to judge a seafood restaurant? Then I saw the fish and chips and wanted that, but then I saw the lobster rolls. Oh boy. Sold. Then, just as I was closing the menu, I saw the mac and cheese! I am a rabid fanatic of baked mac, and I ended up going for the pulled pork mac & cheese. Yes I know it’s not a seafood dish, but it sounded so amazing I just couldn’t resist.

Pulled pork on baked mac & cheese. *dies*

Pulled pork on baked mac & cheese. *dies*

Before I knew it, my dish of baked heaven appeared before my eyes, and it was magnificent. The pulled pork was tender, smoky, and jammed with flavor molecules. (Note: Flavor molecules may not actually exist, but you get the idea.) The mac & cheese was excellent as well, but ever so slightly understated. This is actually a good thing because it worked well to highlight the pulled pork, undoubtedly the star of the show. Alone, though, it could have used a teeny bit more flavor and/or cheesiness. It was still all kinds of epic win though.

The brisket is remarkably good, especially for a seafood restaurant.

The brisket is remarkably good, especially for a seafood restaurant.

On subsequent visits and with additional fellow dinner-ists, I also got a chance to try the brisket sandwich. Yes yes, I can hear you whining that this is a review for a seafood place and I still have yet to try any actual seafood. Just keep your pants on, we’re getting to that. The brisket was on par with the pulled pork, meaning that it was very good indeed. The barbecue at this place is better than what you’d find at most dedicated barbecue places actually, and that fact goes a long way towards showing that the folks in the kitchen here really know what they’re doing.

I totally took this picture myself. Yep.

I totally took this picture myself. Yep.

There, see? I finally got to the fish and chips. More specifically, it’s haddock and chips, which is a nice little detail that really impresses me. Haddock is fairly common anywhere near the Atlantic Ocean, but seeing haddock this far west means that this restaurant is serious about being New England-y. Don’t take my word for it though. I dragged a native Bostonian here to give it a try, and he wasn’t very thrilled… until he saw that it was haddock. At that point (and after tasting the fish and chips) he changed his tune completely and had nothing but very positive things to say. On yet another visit I overheard a guy from England make a point of flagging down one of the people running the restaurant and complimenting them on the food. “It’s the best fish and chips I have had outside of London” were his exact words. And yes, I agree – the fish and chips are that good here. They are spectacular in fact.

At the end of the day, Portola Valley Lobster Shack is an excellent place to grab a bite to eat. If you’re hankering for a taste of east coast seafood or a bit of barbecue, this is the place for you. Rumor has it they make a mean lobster roll and a dandy cup of chowder as well, but my opinions on those will have to wait for a revisit. I hereby bestow a rating of 35,098,552,670,980 flavor molecules (out of 38,000,000,000,000 of course), which should land this restaurant pretty close to the middle of your radar screen. Visit here soon.

Portola Valley Lobster Shack / Old Bay Lobster Shack
Multiple locations in the Bay Area
www.oplobster.com

Portola Valley Lobster Shack on Urbanspoon


Lots of seating outdoors, not lots indoors.

Lots of seating outdoors, not lots indoors.


Standard Restaurant Review Disclaimer
The ambiguous and illogical rating system used in this review is not intended to be pinpoint accurate. It’s only there to give you a general idea of how much I like or dislike an establishment, and it also gives me an excuse to write silly things. If my rating system angers and distracts you, there’s a good chance you have control issues. I would also like to point out that I am not a highly qualified restaurant reviewer person, nor do I particularly care what that job is called. If you were under the impression that perhaps I was one of those people, consider your hopes dashed. Lastly, wow! You read the entire disclaimer. You get a gold star on your chart today.


The Melt

meter-great+The people who work at The Melt have been spying on me. They must have been. It’s one thing for a restaurant to have exactly what I want to eat and just the right sides and drinks, but to have only those things? Yeah, coincidence my butt.

The other day I found myself wandering around Stanford Shopping Center, a well-to-do outdoorsy mall type place right in the middle of Palo Alto. It’s a nice place to shop and all, but it’s not really my cup of tea. If I was in the market for a size minus three cocktail dress or a Swarovski encrusted penguin, I’d probably think this mall was the bees knees. What I really wanted was lunch, though, and the standard mall fare I’d found so far just wasn’t cutting it. After what seemed like tens of minutes of searching, I finally located a directory with actual directions on it. (Mini rant: Why has every mall in America replaced their maps with advertisements? Ads do no good at all if I can’t find the stupid stores they go to.) As I scanned the the directory I spied The Melt. That sounded to me like either a heated yoga studio or a Modern English souvenir store, both very likely choices in a place like Palo Alto. Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to check it out.

With a name like The Melt, there'd better be cheese involved. Lots of it.

With a name like The Melt, there’d better be cheese involved. Lots of it.

I made my way to the other end of the mall, dodging Armani baby strollers by the dozen and doing a pretty good OJ-Simpson-in-an-airport impersonation in the process. As I made my way through yet another swarm of people in overpriced Pilates outfits, I caught a glimpse of The Melt. The restaurant sports a clean, utopian orange-and-white color scheme and a menu straight out of my dreams.

First thing on the menu: Grilled cheese. OMG

Second thing on the menu: Grilled cheese. …and then I fainted.

The interior decorating style is half In-N-Out Burger, half IKEA.

The interior decorating style is half In-N-Out Burger, half IKEA.

” That sounded to me like either a heated yoga studio or a Modern English souvenir store “

The entire menu, in fact, revolves around this single, exquisitely perfect food. There are different choices for bread, cheese, and various add-ins (like bacon!), and there are also soups and salads to be had. The beverage menu is equally brief, with the primary choices being iced tea, lemonade, and water. It’s perfect.

It took me exactly 12.7 seconds to notice the Mac Daddy, a grilled cheese WITH MACARONI AND CHEESE IN IT. Holy heck I love this place. One of those please with, oh yes, a side Caesar salad and an iced tea. Talk about a slam dunk. To top things off the cashier asked, “Would you like chips or a pickle?” PICKLE! Hot dang this place is on fire.

Macaroni and cheese IN a grilled cheese sandwich. *eye twitch*

Macaroni and cheese IN a grilled cheese sandwich. *eye twitch*

I filled up the environmentally friendly plastic-like cup with tea and settled down to enjoy my golden, crispy, macaroni-y lunch. The thing that surprised me was not the high quality of the food, but how well portioned everything was. My grilled cheese wasn’t a super duper über mega glutton-size sandwich – it was just a sandwich. The iced tea was a respectable (and refillable) 20 ounces, and the salad was …well, salad-sized. Outstanding. It was just enough to eat without making me split my pants, and yet it was still delicious and awesome. Somewhere along the way our society has managed to forget that more doesn’t always equal better; it’s nice to see that someone remembered. Add to that some snazzy online ordering tools and lightning quick service, and we’ve got ourselves a real winner here.

If I had to nitpick something, it would be what my lunch was served in. Instead of plates or plastic containers, The Melt opts for reusable wire mesh baskets lined with a single sheet of what looks like wax paper. I well and truly appreciate the environmentally friendly approach – really, I do – but eating salad off of a piece of paper just doesn’t work. By the end of my meal the paper had soaked through with dressing, leaving large soggy holes for the lettuce to fall through to the maybe-clean counter top directly below. Gross.

In spite of the eating receptacle issues, I rate The Melt a phenomenal 9.3 out of 10 metric tons of cheddar. If you’re a grilled cheese fanatic like I am, you owe it to yourself to grab a bite here.

The Melt
Multiple locations around the Bay Area (and many other places)
www.themelt.com
The Melt on Urbanspoon

I may never eat anywhere else again.

I may never eat anywhere else again.