browned and bubbly

the original title of this recipe is “macaroni and cheese,” but i think my expectations would have fared better if it were named some sort of casserole instead.  my friend and i have a history of dissatisfaction with mac and cheese recipes: the end result is never cheesy enough, the sauce never saucy enough.  so to assuage my food neuroses, let’s just call this ham & tomato casserole.  because as casseroles go, this one’s good.

it is simple: pasta in a creamy white sauce; bits of smoky ham; juicy, sweet chunks of tomato; some bread crumbs thrown on top for crunch.  in fact, as i glanced at the photocopy of the recipe, wandering about the grocery store to pick up the ingredients, i had serious doubts about its simplicity, about whether this dish would pack enough flavor.  no minced onion to sauté?  no garlic?  not even
seasoned bread crumbs to go on top?  apparently i feel safer when a recipe tells me to gild the lily.

but no: this recipe – as it is – is good.  the way chocolate syrup in a glass of milk is good.  the way sleeping in is good.  the way a letter in the mail is good.

i’m trying to think of a way i might adapt the recipe the next time i make it (which will probably be later tonight, since my brother and dad attacked the pan not long after i took it out of the oven – which i will take as a compliment), but i can’t think of anything.  the flavors remind me of the croque madame i had at dusty’s, perhaps the best breakfast sandwich i have ever stuck a fork to.  the ham brings just enough saltiness to the mild cheese sauce; the browned bread crumbs provide a crisp complement to the creaminess; and the tomatoes are just genius in a dish like this – bright both in color and taste, a juicy spot in just the right places.

Ham & Cheese Casserole
Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser, who adapted her grandmother’s recipe
Makes 4 servings

2 Tbsp. butter, plus more for buttering dish
2 Tbsp. flour
2 cups milk
1 ½ cups grated Monterey Jack cheese, plus more for sprinkling (This took me a little less than half a pound.)
3 ½ cups cooked elbow macaroni (I boiled about 8 oz. of fusilli.)
1 cup small cubes roasted country ham (Thick-sliced ham is hard to find around here, so I made do with several slices of black forest ham, cut into small pieces.)
1 cup canned Italian plum tomatoes, drained (reserve the juice)
¾ cup coarse breadcrumbs (made from stale bread cut into little cubes)
Freshly ground black pepper (Don’t skip this, please; it’s important.)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Butter a casserole dish.
  2. In a saucepan, heat the 2 tablespoons butter until foamy.  Sprinkle in the flour and whisk until it turns golden, then slowly pour in the milk, continuing to whisk.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat and let it thicken.  Stir in the cheese and removed from the heat.  It should be a loose sauce.
  3. Fold in the macaroni, then ham.  Add tomatoes by squeezing them between your fingers into small pieces.  Taste and fix accordingly.  The mixture should be loose like a thin batter; if it’s glue-y and thick, add a little milk or drained tomato juice.
  4. Pour into the casserole dish.  Spread breadcrumbs over the surface and then sprinkle with about ¼ cup cheese.  Grind pepper over top.  Bake until browned on the top and bubbling, about 25 minutes.

already procrastinating

i have had so much on my mind and not enough quiet café moments to put it all into prose.  for now, i will feed you recipes and hope better words will follow in time.


almond cake

i cannot stop baking this cake.  it’s absolute perfection when you want something soft and dense (almost chewy) and elegant in the most unassuming way.  the warm almond perfume that wafts up from the oven as it bakes has become my new favorite scent.

Almond Cake

from Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser
Makes one cake; serves 10

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened, more for buttering pan
1 cup sour cream, at room temperature
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour (measured after sifting)
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 ½ cups sugar
7-ounce tube almond paste, cut into small pieces
4 egg yolks, at room temperature
1 teaspoon almond extract
Confectioners’ sugar, for sifting over cake

  1. Preheat the oven to 350º F.  Butter the sides and bottoms of one 9-inch springform pan; line sides and bottoms with parchment paper.  Butter the paper. (You may forego the parchment paper as long as you are generous with the butter on the pan itself.)  Mix together the sour cream and baking soda in a small bowl. {The baking soda will make the sour cream expand, so use a bowl that has some extra room.} Sift the flour and salt into another bowl.
  2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy.  Add the almond paste, a little at a time, at medium speed, and beat for 8 minutes.  Beat in the egg yolks one at a time, and mix until incorporated.  It will look curdled; don’t worry.  Blend in the almond extract and sour cream mixture.  Reduce mixer speed to low and gradually add the flour mixture, just until blended.
  3. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly.  Bake about 1 hour.  It is done when you press the top and it returns to its shape, and also shrinks from the sides of the pan.  Remove from the oven and place on a baking rack to cool in the pan.  When ready to serve, sift confectioners’ sugar on top and slice like a pie.

cinnamon-sugared nuts

i meant to post this recipe in time for christmas, because loaded into a pretty glass jar, they make charming little gifts.

i at least thought i could post it in time for new year’s eve, when they would make a happy little home in a shallow bowl next to the bubbly and the little bites, should you find yourself at a dapper little house party.

but obviously we have now dug into the first week of january already…  so it’s a good thing these nuts also make a great snack to tote along, wherever it is this new year is taking you.

Cinnamon-Sugared Nuts

adapted from smitten kitchen, who adapted from Elizabeth Karmel of Hill Country
Makes one pound of candied nuts

1/3 cup dark-brown sugar
2/3 cup white granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 pound walnut and pecan halves (I like about a 2:1 ratio in favor of the pecans)
1 egg white, room temperature
1 tablespoon water
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Mix sugars, salt, cayenne, and cinnamon, making sure there are no lumps; set aside. Beat egg white and water until frothy but not stiff. Add walnuts, and stir to coat evenly. Sprinkle nuts with sugar mixture, and toss until evenly coated. Spread sugared nuts in a single layer on a cookie sheet fitted with parchment paper. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from oven, and separate nuts as they cool. When completely cool, pour the nuts into a bowl, breaking up any that stick together.