Comfort Food for a Rough Day – We Always Think of Cheese

Yesterday, we had a bit of a storm here in the Pacific Northwest. It generated nothing like the deadly tidal surges of Hurricane Sandy, I mean nothing, but it was still the largest storm we’ve had in more than 30 years, according to Mr. Salmon, our neighbor and long-term resident of our small beach community just north of Seattle. “Everything that was on one side of my garage was washed to the other side,” he observed, pointing at a garage door broken in by the very high tides generated by a combination of unusually high tide and an unusually strong windstorm.

Our front yard. The Shore Pine made it through the storm!

It was a little wild out there

After spending the day huddling inside from the storm, venturing out only to see if we still had a deck or front yard, we came to our evening meal badly in need of comfort. To us, that means one thing, and one thing only. OK, it might even mean two or three things, but last night we were like hungry lasers, intently focused on Mac and Cheese.

The Great Comfort Foods –  and Why Do They All Involve Cheese?

Everybody enjoys unique and different comfort foods, from Soup to Sandwiches to Potato Pancakes.

Indeed, there are almost as many recipes for comfort food available on the Internet as pictures of cats. Yes, that’s wrong. By orders of magnitude. There are more pictures of cats then anything else on the Internet. The Internet is, in fact, made of cats. But there’s a lot of comfort food too. It lives in the cracks between all the pictures of cats.

Regardless of comfort food recipes I may have posted like Why Avgolemono Soup is the Perfect Food, I can tell you that when the mood is upon us and we’re craving something simple, something good, something to put a smile on our faces, and something a little. . .rich, our thoughts generally turn to cheese.

And what could be a better use for cheese then as the star of a hot, nourishing mac and cheese, perhaps with a wee bit of salad on the side.

Mac and Cheese with Chipotle and Orange Zest

I’ve written about Mac and Cheese before in these pages, but last night, I believe I may have found one of the Platonic ideals of that dish. Don’t start with me, I *know* there’s technically only one Platonic ideal, but this is a food blog, we’ve got a lotta ideals here.

Like Neo, this recipe may be The One. Certainly it is for us. Adapted (changes include julienned orange zest, panko bread crumbs, slightly different proportions) from a wonderful recipe created by Kurt Beecher Dammeier, the proprietor of Seattle’s Beecher’s Cheese, this recipe is rich with flavor and texture, offers two very pleasant taste surprises and sits lightly in your belly like an old well-worn sneaker on your foot. That did not come out right, but I think you know what I mean. Oh, and it does not use Beecher’s Cheese (we did not have any when the moment arrived), but Beecher’s Cheese makes a damn fine mac and cheese – use it if you’ve got it!

Notes: This recipe makes enough for two very hungry people plus perhaps a little snack. Or two. It doubles easily. Or triples. And it freezes well.

En Place

En Place

Ingredients – for 2 dinner or 4 first course servings

For the Cheese Sauce

  • 1-3/4 C. milk (You can use any kind of milk except nonfat. You can use nonfat, but will be drummed out of the Comfort Food Corps fife and drum band if you do.
  • 1/4 C. all purpose flour
  • 3 TB. butter
  • 1/4 tsp. or a bit more, ground dried chipotle pepper, or powdered chipotle.
  • 1/2 tsp. coarse kosher salt
  • Total of 8 oz. cheese, coarsely grated. Mr. Dammeier’s original recipe calls for a variety of Beecher’s Cheeses (I didn’t have any at the moment the urge struck), along with cheddar (more Beecher’s) and Gruyere (not Beechers). I used 6 oz. of sharp white Cheddar (Tillamook Vintage White Extra Sharp), and two oz. of 6 month old sheeps’ milk Manchego. The idea is to have a variety of cheeses that play against each other – sweeter and sharper, less salty, saltier, melty <a technical cheese term referring to “meltability” or smooth, moist melting>, drier. Cows, goats. See?
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
  • Zest from two big strips of orange (I used Clementine Cuties, they were at hand and very good!). Try to take zest in fairly broad (at least 1/2″) and longish (at least an inch and a half) strips. Then cut it into a fine julienne, really almost a chiffonade. You’ll want to use the zest as an ingredient more than a seasoning, so leave it in fine julienne – don’t dice it. What happens is you’ll be munching blissfully away on your mac and cheese when you suddenly get a tiny burst of citrus flavor. It made us smile, I hope it has that effect on you!
Little Cutie chiffonade of orange zest

Little Cutie chiffonade of orange zest

For the pasta and topping

  • 7 oz. your favorite pasta shape, mine is rigatoni, but any short, squat shape that promises fair to hold the cheese will do beautifully. For a length and engaging thread on appropriate pasta shapes, click here.
  • 2-3 oz. additional cheese, coarsely grated. I used an ounce+ of the Tillamook Vintage White Aged Reserve and an ounce+ of grass-fed Swiss. Again, flavor and textural contrast between cheeses is what you’re after.
  • 1/2 C. panko bread crumbs. Please use panko if you can – it just works much better in this dish. If panko isn’t available, use 1/4C. standard bread crumbs.
  • 1/4 tsp. ground dried chipotle pepper, or powdered chipotle.
  • Butter to butter baking dish
  • Smaller baking dish.


Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water until you can just pierce it with a fork. This is typically 2-3 minutes less time than the package calls for. Drain, refresh in cold water, drain again and set aside. Butter the inside of the baking dish, bottom and sides.

Preheat oven to 350F.

Make the cheese sauce. Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. After butter is finished foaming, add the flour and begin whisking (I personally use the flat of a fork, but use whatever you like as long as you whisk continuously). Turn the heat down as necessary to keep the flour from browning. The idea is you want to have a nice smooth, fairly thick roux and cook off the “flour taste”.

Add 1/4 tsp. chipotle or a bit more, to taste. Don’t use too much, the chipotle’s definitely not the star, but is an important character actor. Keep whisking or stirring for another 20-30 seconds. Add the salt, stir it in.

Add the milk all at once. If you turned the heat down, turn it back to medium and keep whisking. As the milk heats, it will begin to thicken and become smooth. Add 8oz. of the grated cheese and keep stirring. Whisk until you have a beautiful, smooth sauce. Add the julienned orange zest and stir it in. The entire process should take perhaps ten minutes at the outside.
Handy Note: Make it ahead. Making the sauce ahead means you can have a beautiful mac and cheese on the table in a half hour. Make it ahead, seal it and pop it in your freezer, where it will keep and be lovely for months.

Place the drained pasta into the buttered baking dish and pour the cheese sauce over it, smoothing it down a bit with the back of a fork or a spatula. Spread the additional grated cheese evenly over the top. Spread the panko over the cheese and drift a little (about 1/2 tsp) of the ground chipotle over it all.

Into the 350F oven, where it will cook for about 20 minutes or until it’s bubbling slightly and the top has browned a little (see below). If it’s cooked for 25 minutes and the top isn’t browned, you may want to carefully put it under a hot broiler for a minute or two until brownness happens.

I'm definitely hungry now

I’m definitely hungry now

Let the dish rest outside the oven for about 5-10 minutes, during which time it will firm up and become easier to cut and serve. Here’s how ours looked (note that I served it with segments of the Clementine Cutie whose zest I used above).

On a plate with the rest of the Clementine Cuties

On the plate with Clementine Cutie segments as garnish

We enjoyed our mac and cheese with a simple composed salad, a big glass of white wine and blissful contentment. The storm continued to howl outside, our front yard was partly washed away, but inside the house, we were comforted.

Salad by Bonney – Romaine, English cuke, tomato, red onion.