Cue the Comfort

The great thing about comfort foods is that they are incredibly simple and extremely delicious. With that being said, it never hurts to play with a basic recipe to ramp up the flavors and increase the appeal. The ladies at the Baptist church where the Tedescos spent Mother’s Day in 1978 certainly knew this.

In my novel, The Tedescos, Joe took Shirley, Grandma Josephine, and the kids to the church where their best friends, Smiley and Charlene Roberts, attended. Since it was Mother’s Day, the men had to do all the cooking and serving, but you can be sure it was under the direction of the ladies who wanted to guarantee that their best recipes turned out right.

One of the side dishes featured was classic macaroni and cheese. What the ladies at the Baptist church knew was that good food didn’t have to be fancy; it just had to taste like a little piece of Heaven. I imagine the following recipe is something like what these excellent cooks would have been proud to set out on the food table, perhaps with a bit of a flourish. It’s the type of comfort food that will have guests coming back for seconds and thirds.

Macaroni and Cheese as featured in the Ladies Auxiliary Cookbook

1 – 1 lb. box of elbow macaroni

½ c (1 stick) unsalted butter

½ c all-purpose flour

4 c whole milk

3 – 8 oz. blocks* of cheese, shredded

1 t salt

½ – 1 t black pepper (I used a coarse grind)

1 t dry mustard

10 – 12 slices of provolone cheese

Parmesan cheese

Cook the macaroni al dente according to package instructions. Drain thoroughly as macaroni holds a lot of water in the crook of the elbow. While the macaroni is draining, use the hot pot you cooked it in to melt the butter over a low heat. Add the flour and whisk until smooth. Cook for one minute over a low heat and do not let it burn. Slowly add the milk, whisking thoroughly, and cook for another minute over medium heat.

Preheat your oven to 400° during the next part.

Add the cheese by handfuls, stirring after each addition. Continue cooking until the cheese melts and becomes stringy. Not all the cheese may melt, but this is acceptable. The liquid portion of the mixture will still thicken quite nicely.

Add the drained macaroni to the mixture and stir to coat. Carefully pour the mixture into a 9 x 13 glass baking dish. (Do not panic if it seems soupy. The extra liquid will be absorbed and make the macaroni and cheese creamy.) Top with the provolone slices and liberally sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Bake at 400° for 25 minutes or until the cheese on the top browns and bubbles. Let the macaroni and cheese sit for ten minutes before serving.

Toasted cheesy deliciousness!

*Side note:  I start with blocks of cheese over pre-shredded because it’s creamier. The pre-shredded stuff always seems dry to me. Also, I suspect the quantity isn’t exactly what the packaging says. You’ll want at least six cups of cheese, however, I’ve found that a little more never hurts which is another reason I prefer blocks of cheese. When choosing cheeses, I like to include at least one orange cheese to make it look like traditional, American macaroni and cheese.

The Luxury of Chocolate

Chocolate ranks high among all the comfort foods in which one can indulge. It’s even better when it’s incorporated into a homemade recipe lovingly prepared by Grandma’s hands. And while chocolate in all its many forms is delicious, I do believe there isn’t anything that can’t be made better by eating homemade chocolate pudding.

Grandma Josephine Tedesco believes in love as the main ingredient in everything she makes for her grandkids. And even though Grandma’s mind isn’t always in the present, when it comes to cooking or baking, she’s as sharp as Gordon Ramsay’s knives. The following recipe for chocolate pudding is the one I had in mind when writing about pudding in my novel, The Tedescos. It’s absolutely decadent and just the sort of dessert Grandma Josephine would proudly serve. It’s simple, elegant, and a little bit of chocolate heaven.

Grandma Josephine’s Chocolate Pudding

2 ¼ c whole milk

½ cup sugar (I used raw sugar for a deep, rich flavor)

Pinch of sea salt

1/4 c unsweetened cocoa powder

2 T cornstarch

2 large egg yolks

1 large egg

5 oz. semisweet chocolate, finely chopped or in chips

2 T unsalted butter

2 t vanilla

STEP ONE: Whisk the cornstarch, cocoa, and ¼ c of the sugar in a mixing bowl. Add ¼ c of milk, and whisk until it’s smooth. Set aside.

STEP TWO: In a medium bowl, thoroughly whisk the whole egg with the two egg yolks. Set aside.

STEP THREE: Combine the remaining 2 cups of milk, ¼ c of sugar, and the sea salt in a medium saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. Stir constantly to dissolve the sugar. When the mixture in the saucepan comes to a boil, reduce the heat and stir in the mixture from Step One. Once the two are thoroughly combined, bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly. Do this for about two minutes or until the pudding is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

STEP FOUR: Reduce the heat to low under the pudding and gradually whisk about ½ c of the hot pudding into the egg mixture from Step Two until thoroughly combined. Pour the egg/pudding combination back into the saucepan taking care to scrape out the bowl. Cook the pudding over medium heat, whisking constantly, until a soft boil is achieved, about two minutes.

STEP FIVE:  Remove the pudding from the heat and add the semi-sweet chocolate, butter, and vanilla. Stir until the butter and chocolate are melted and the pudding is smooth. Pour the pudding into six dessert dishes or ramekins that hold about 6 ounces each. A piece of plastic wrap placed directly on the surface of the pudding will keep a skin from forming. Refrigerate the pudding until chilled.

Serve with whipped cream and/or chopped peanuts if desired.

Enjoy!

All Aboard the Gravy Train

all-aboard-the-gravy-train-2Well-made gravy is food for the gods. Gravy deserves to be its own food group. In fact, I move that gravy receive as much recognition as the main courses and side dishes that end up on our plates. Naturally, gravy is mentioned in my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles.

In the scene where Johnny’s Aunt Prudence barges in on the family as they’re sitting down to dinner, I wrote that Collie served mashed potatoes. Everyone knows that mashed potatoes can stand alone as delicious comfort food, but with the addition of gravy, it’s like eating the clouds upon which cherubs rest.

I’m going to focus on chicken gravy for the sake of this post because that’s the gravy accompanying the mashed potatoes in the above-mentioned meal. I prefer to use drippings directly from the chicken I’ve cooked, whether it’s a whole roasted chicken or baked thighs, but a can of quality broth can be substituted. The amount/size of the chicken you prepare will determine the quantity of drippings you achieve. This can be stretched especially if you’ve placed butter under the skin of your chicken or are using canned broth to baste.

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Perfectly seasoned drippings waiting to be thickened.

As for seasoning gravy, I like to depend on how I seasoned my chicken. This will determine the flavor of your gravy. One of my favorite seasoning combinations that I use on a roaster or thighs, both beneath and on the skin, ensures delicious drippings for gravy:

1 t sea salt

¼ t oregano

¼ t black pepper

¼ t garlic powder

¼ t onion powder

¼ t paprika

¼ t thyme (not ground)

all-aboard-the-gravy-train-3Collect the drippings from the baking dish or pan you cooked in and be sure to strain it through a fine mesh sieve. Place the drippings in a saucepan over a low heat.

My preferred thickener for meat dripping based gravy is corn starch. Sometimes flour is too lumpy, tastes too pasty, and looks too cloudy. Also, you can use less corn starch than flour when thickening which means fewer calories.

Always mix the cornstarch in equal proportions with a cold liquid, milk or water, and stir thoroughly to prevent lumps before whisking into the hot drippings. Cornstarch placed directly in hot drippings will seize up and create inedible food glue. The rule of thumb is two tablespoons of cornstarch per cup of liquid to attain a gravy-like consistency.

Stir constantly and bring your mixture to a boil. Boil for one minute. Season with additional salt and pepper if needed.

When using canned broth, the same seasoning will flavor the broth nicely. Opt for a low-sodium variety since you’ll be adding salt. Thicken in the same manner, just remember to strain out the large particles of oregano and thyme.

Enjoy!

Do The Mash

do-the-mash-1Mashed potatoes figure in to my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, in a couple places. As I mentioned when I started Edible Fiction, I love to feed people whether real or imagined. For real people, it’s because I enjoy watching them appreciate what I’ve prepared. For my characters, I have discovered that food is an extension of the scene taking place and/or their personalities.

For Marian Watley Welles, wife of Johnny’s older brother, James, she attacked several mounds of mashed potatoes tipping off her mother-in-law, Collie, to the fact that she was pregnant. In fact, Collie’s suggestion to have another helping and Marian’s willingness to comply was what made Collie so sure of her daughter-in-law’s pregnancy. What hungry first-time mother could resist one of the ultimate comfort foods?

Another instance where I employed mashed potatoes was during Prudence’s first visit to the Welles Family Farm. Along with the other items Collie prepared for dinner, mashed potatoes featured on the menu. I wished to convey a homey setting complete with all the family favorites. Prudence forced herself into this scenario, upsetting the Welles Family, because deep in her heart, it’s what she longed for.

A high starch potato like Yukon Gold or Russet makes the fluffiest, smoothest mashed potatoes. They absorb flavors well (chicken broth when boiling, dairy when mashing). Avoid waxy potatoes like Red Bliss or fingerlings which have a tendency to turn gummy or gluey upon mashing. Choose one large potato per person when deciding upon quantity. I include one or two extra potatoes in case someone wants seconds or leftovers.

I didn’t used to believe it myself, but salting the water truly makes a difference. It’s the first step toward seasoning, so don’t skip it. Also, start with cold water to ensure even cooking. On the other hand, when adding your butter and cream, they should be warm. I do this in the cooking pot while my cooked potato chunks are draining in a colander. Your potatoes will absorb all the deliciousness of the dairy and you’ll have to work them less to incorporate the butter and cream. This means lighter, creamier potatoes.

Weapon of Mash Destruction

Weapon of Mash Destruction

And since we’re on the subject of overworking mashed potatoes, put down the hand-held mixer, place the food processor back on its shelf, and tell your standing mixer you’ll see it later. These devices are too aggressive and will turn your potatoes into grainy food glue. Pull your potato masher from the drawer and gently mash your potatoes. Remember, lumps are not a bad thing in mashed potatoes; they add to the homemade quality. If you insist on completely smooth taters, non-electric ricers or food mills are the only acceptable, alternative tools.

Perfect Mashed Potatoes

Yukon Gold or Russet Potatoes

1 stick unsalted butter (This quantity for a full pot. Adjust to taste as needed.)

Sea Salt

Freshly cracked pepper (I use quad-colored peppercorns.)

Whole milk or heavy cream (Amount of liquid also dependent on quantity of potatoes.)

Choose one large potato per person. Fill a large cooking pot with cold water and about a teaspoon of salt. Wash, peel, and cut the potatoes into evenly sized chunks. Place the chunks into the water while working to keep the potatoes from turning brown or gray.

Bring the water to a boil and cook the potatoes until the biggest chunk is tender. Pierce with a paring knife to check for doneness. Drain the potatoes but do not rinse.

Melt the butter in the pot over a low heat and stir in the milk or cream. You may need to adjust the liquid based on the quantity of potatoes, but keep in mind that you want the potatoes creamy without being too dry or too runny.  Add the cooked potatoes to the butter and milk or cream.  Mash gently with a hand-held potato masher.

Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a serving bowl.

Enjoy!

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