Thursday, October 15, 2009

The mac and cheese testing continues

As you know, mac and cheese is one of my favorite foods. But it isn't something that can made and eaten everyday thanks to the butter, milk, and cheese usually required. And sometimes bacon.

I own exactly one "light" cookbook. It's from those good folks at America's Test Kitchen, so you know they are going to try to make the best possible light recipes they can possibly make and still call them light. Nothing will be tasteless or lacking. I've made a couple things from this cookbook, but for some reason, I hadn't tried the mac and cheese yet. Two nights ago, I did.

Everyday Macaroni and Cheese
from The Best Light Recipe
by America's Test Kitchen

Serves 5

1/2 pound elbow macaroni
1 (12-oz) can reduced-fat (2%) evaporated milk
3/4 cup 2% milk
1/4 tsp dry mustard
1/8 tsp garlic powder or celery salt (optional)
Pinch cayenne
2 tsp cornstarch
8 ounces 50% light cheddar cheese, grated (they like Cabot)

1. Bring 2 1/2 quarts water to a boil in a large saucepan. Stir in 2 teaspoons salt and the macaroni; cook until the pasta is completely cooked and tender, about 5 minutes. Drain the pasta and leave in the colander; set aside.

2. Add the evaporated milk, 1/2 cup of the 2% milk, mustard, garlic powder, cayenne, and 1/2 tsp salt to the now-empty saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Whisk the cornstarch and remaining 1/4 cup milk together, then whisk it into the simmering mixture. Continue to simmer, whisking constantly, until the sauce has thickened and is smooth, about 2 minutes.

3. Off the heat, gradually whisk in the cheddar until melted and smooth. Stir in the macaroni, and let the macaroni and cheese sit off the heat until the sauce has thickened slightly, 2 to 5 minutes before serving.

Notice anything about this recipe? No butter. The write up in the cookbook about their development of this recipe goes into detail about eliminating the traditional roux used to make the bechamel for the mac and cheese. They figured out that if they made a cornstarch slurry and instead of a butter based roux, that it worked just fine.

I was also wary of using the evaporated milk and reduced fat cheese. But I have great faith in ATK. The grocery store here had the Cabot 50% reduced fat cheddar, so I used that. Actually, according to ATK, they think that most of the time, using a 50% reduced fat cheese is okay. Just check the package to see if the fat content is about half of the regular product. I used this method to compare the reduced fat cheeses at the store. While hardly any are labeled as 50% less fat, most are in the right ball park. I was also surprised to see how the fat content varied between identically labeled reduced fat cheeses. As I grated the cheese, I tasted some straight up. It's really not too bad.

So how does this recipe really stack up according to the numbers? I'm glad you asked. The folks at ATK have a handy "makeover at a glance" box included for this recipe that pits the numbers of the traditional version against this light one. They based their original recipe on their own from Cook's Illustrated. (Incidentally, I've made another one of their mac & cheese recipes.)

Per serving
Classic: 650 calories
Light: 360 calories

Classic: 200 mg
Light: 40 mg

Classic: 40 g
Calories 10 g

Saturated Fat
Classic: 27 g
Light: 6 g

The end result is a very yummy, creamy, cheesy, and flavorful mac and cheese. The sauce is saucy, similar in consistency to a fake cheese like Velveeta - but tastes so much better. It also tastes way better than Kraft mac & cheese, but really, only takes a teensy bit more effort and time to make than the Kraft version. It's worth that little extra effort.

This mac and cheese isn't baked. I would like to have the crunch of bread crumbs on top of this, so maybe next time I'll put a smidge more milk in and then top with bread crumbs and pop it in the oven for a few minutes to get that crunchy top. All in all, very good and very easy to make. One pot, no knife. Excellent.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Have a little puddin'

The holidays are coming. Besides the Halloween and Christmas decorations at Target, and pumpkins in the grocery store, the other indicator that the seasons are changing is when Trader Joe's starts to stock their fall/holiday items, expensive meats/appetizers, and expands the baking section. Some of my favorite TJ products are only available this time of the year and that makes them extra special. Favorites include peppermint Jo-Jo's (cookies) and pumpkin butter. I didn't see the cookies yet, but the pumpkin butter was sitting prettily on the shelf so I picked one up. I also noticed in the cookie section maple leaf cookies. These are maple cookies sandwiched around a maple vanilla filling. Oh. Yum. Alas, the nutrition information is quite terrible, so I didn't buy a box, but I will at some point for a get-together or other "special" event when they can be shared.

I did, however, buy a new product that I hope will be a year-round product and not a seasonal one. Whenever I do my shopping, I make sure to peruse "new product" end cap by the dairy section. I'm familiar enough with TJ products that I can usually spot new ones as I stroll the aisle, but I always check this end cap just to make sure I didn't miss anything interesting. This week, I spotted retro-designed boxes of instant pudding. I couldn't help myself. The decision was not to buy a box or not, but whether to get vanilla or chocolate. I opted for chocolate.

Instant pudding is one of those simple-stupid things to make. Really. Can't screw it up even if you tried. I whisked the pudding with the called for cold milk (nonfat in my case even though the box wanted 2%) in my brand new 4-cup Pyrex measuring cup with the non-slide bottom. This is exactly the sort of thing I wanted this cup for. I only got it a couple weekends ago and this was my first recipe putting it to work. The sticky silicon ring on the bottom of the cup held like glue to the counter while I whisked. The size was perfect for whisking, and the spout allowed me to easily pour the pudding into the cups.

Here is the box and measuring cup at work:

After dinner Monday night, we had pudding for dessert. I'm no connoisseur of instant puddings as the only time I eat it is when it's in a berry trifle, but I thought this TJ instant pudding was very good. The chocolate was almost the exact same chocolate flavor as a brownie batter which means it's very chocolate-y. We both thought the pudding was just a teensy bit grainy. I'm not sure if that's because I didn't whisk it enough or if that's just how instant pudding is. The little bit of grain didn't bother us in the slightest. The second day we had the pudding, a little skin had formed on the top but nothing too disgusting. The box says this pudding makes excellent pie filling, so I think Steve will get a chocolate pudding pie sometime in the months ahead. But before that, I want to give the vanilla a try, too.

All in all, I would highly recommend this instant pudding for it's very satisfying chocolate taste, creamy consistency (even if using nonfat milk), completely idiot-proof instructions, and friendly price.