February, twenty-fifteen

My intention is to post this sort of piece at the end of every month for the next year, a way of pausing, looking back and capturing the fundamental quality of each calendar flip via the literature, film, television, music and various flavours I consumed.

February was: glaring.

- I was a bit slow to find my way to this one, but I finally started (and finished) listening to the Serial podcast. So addictive! It kind of blew my mind actually, the way the project shifted into more of a collaboration as it gained listeners and a wider following. Makes me think we'll be seeing more of this kind of investigative, crowd-sourced journalism. Here's hoping.

- I guess I was on a true crime bent this month because I also reread Truman Capote's In Cold BloodI read it years ago for a university class but when I saw it sitting on the bookshelf early in February, all lonely and forgotten, I felt like a reunion was in order. 

- The void left in my life by Breaking Bad is starting to fill up. Better Call Saul premiered this month and it feels like a pleasant surprise, a run-in with an old friend I forgot to miss. Four episodes in and I'm hooked.

- I worked on two short articles about French cooking for Fresh magazine this month and I found myself flipping through Mastering the Art of French Cooking and watching old Julia Child clips for inspiration. That voice! That enthusiasm! She made February a lighter, brighter place.

- We've been listening to this record, a recent acquisition, non-stop: February's soundtrack.

- We had friends stay with us for a weekend mid-month and of everything I served them, they liked my plain, old roasted broccoli most of all. "How do you make it?" they asked, as if it was some sort of culinary magic. Not so much. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast at 425 for 15-20 minutes, or until softened with crispy edges. Ta da!


Classic Macaroni and Cheese

I cook a lot. That's obvious. But the reasons why I cook aren't always so glaring, even to myself.

Sometimes it's simple. Sometimes when I wander into the kitchen and pick up a wooden spoon or pull a bag of brown sugar down from the top shelf, it's because I'm craving a particular flavour or texture: I want salt or sweet or soft or crisp. Other times, it's because I want to learn something new, a technique or a method. Most often, I'm cooking because I want to share an experience with someone I care about. To feed is to engage, always.

But when I make dishes like this one, a true classic, Macaroni and Cheese, the reasons why become a bit murky. It's more about a sense, really. A sense of connecting and being a part of something of which I can't quite find the edges.
Classic dishes are classic because they've been made again and again. Chances are, you've eaten bowlfuls of macaroni and cheese on and off throughout your life. Countless times, right? You probably have a favourite recipe or variation, a memory of the best mac and cheese you've ever tasted. That's because everyone makes it. Ok, not everyone. But most.

And that's what I'm sensing when I grate the hilltop of cheese for this dish or when I whisk the velvety béchamel. I feel connected. I feel involved. I feel like I'm joining the ranks of cooks before me, becoming a part of a shifting group: an alliance of individuals who all decided, maybe yesterday or maybe sixty years ago, to make macaroni and cheese for dinner.

I can't see their faces but I can see their hands: they're grating cheese and whisking béchamel too.
Classic Macaroni and Cheese
inspired by this beauty

Macaroni and Cheese has always been a favourite of mine. I love baked pasta in all forms, but this one, with its cheesy, creamy noodles and crunchy top, takes the cake in my books. I've kept it simple: no meaty add-ins or fancy cheese. Just some really good sharp cheddar and nutty gruyere. 

The breadcrumb topping, which we crisp up in a pan before sprinkling on top, is added half-way through the cooking process, a little trick I learned from these fine folks. This step ensures your breadcrumbs are crunchy and golden, but not overcooked. 

I've had great success with this recipe in the past and I think you will too. It's a cozy dish, ideal for biting winter nights like the ones we've been having in Montreal recently. I like to serve it with a crisp green salad, lightly dressed, and a glass of red wine. The kind of dinner dreams are made of.

Recipe serves 4-6

3 1/2 Tbs. unsalted butter, divided
3/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup finely grated parmesan

8 oz. short noodle pasta (I like penne)

2 1/2 cups while milk
1 small onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbs. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups grated sharp white cheddar (extra old, if you have it)
1 1/2 cups grated gruyere
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
pinch of nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350.

Breadcrumbs: In a medium pan, melt 1 1/2 Tbs. butter over medium heat. Add breadcrumbs and stir, cooking until golden-brown, 6-8 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and toss with parmesan. Set aside for later.

Pasta: Cook pasta in large pot of boiling, salted water until al dente. For this step, subtract two minutes from the cooking instructions on the back of the box. You want your noodle to be slightly firm because it will continue cooking in the oven. Drain and set aside.

Cheese sauce: In a small pot, bring milk to a slight simmer. Then, in a medium pot, melt remaining 2 Tbs. butter over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant and softened, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle flour on top. Stir, cooking out flour, for 1 minute. Slowly add milk, whisking to blend. 

Bring sauce to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring constantly, until sauce is thickened. This step will take 6-8 minutes. Your sauce won't be super thick, but when you can coat the back of a wooden spoon with sauce and then draw a line through it with your finger, it's thick enough (weird tip, but it works). Off the heat, add cheese, mustard and nutmeg. Stir to combine (cheese will melt). Taste your sauce. Season with salt and pepper.

Assemble and Cook: Mix pasta in with cheese sauce. Transfer to a 2 qt. baking dish. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and top with breadcrumbs. Bake for another 10 minutes or until the dish is bubbling and warmed through. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving.


On Second Slices

January flew by. I feel like I glanced away for a split second, perhaps at a spider on the ceiling or a pile of laundry in need of folding, and when I looked back the calendar had already changed: February had come to play.

Instinct tells me this sense of time and its passing is probably my own fault: when we hide within our routines, let each day leak into the next without marking them as special, they fly away from us at alarming rates. I didn’t do much to make January stand out. 

I can blame it on the cold or the bad weather or the fact that I was sick twice in thirty-one days, but if I’m being really honest, I just didn’t try. I didn’t seek out stimulating things to do or find ways to elevate everyday life. I just worked a bit, wrote a bit, watched a few movies and whipped up those culinary standbys I can make with my eyes closed, in my sleep.

February is going to be different. I’ve made a promise to myself to make as many days as possible feel singular and memorable. Cake felt like a good place to start.
How can you forget a day on which you’re served a slice of homemade cake? Something about the effort it takes to bake a cake, the imperfect way they always turn out, the sense of celebration inherent in each forkful—all result in a feeling of muted significance, a quiet, momentous way to pass a few luxurious minutes. Those minutes don’t fly: they amble and dawdle and linger. And as a result, you do too.

This cake, a Brown Sugar Pound Cake with Brown-Butter Glaze, is extra special. Not in a “celebration cake” kind of way (what does that even mean? layers? fancy frosting?) but in a “wow, this cake is exceptional” kind of way. It tugs at your heartstrings, all that brown sugar and brown butter. Are there two better flavours? No. The answer is no. 

This cake is sweet and dense and the glaze is wonderfully nutty. It is pound cake on another level. 

Slow down, take a moment, linger over a second slice. Time will thank you.
Brown Sugar Pound Cake with Brown-Butter Glaze
Adapted from here

3 cups all-purpose (unbleached) flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
2 1/4 cups packed brown sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup buttermilk (make your own!)

1 stick unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups confectioner's sugar (sifted)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 to 4 tablespoons whole milk

Get ready: Preheat oven to 325. Grease and flour a 12-cup bundt pan.

Make the cake: Whisk dry ingredients in a large bowl. In a separate large bowl, with a mixer on medium speed, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy (about 3 minutes). Add eggs one at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition.

Reduce speed to low. Add dry ingredients to the batter in three additions, alternating with the buttermilk and ending with dry.

Scrape down sides of the bowl and transfer batter to the prepared bundt pan, smoothing out the top with a spatula (batter will be very thick).

Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until a toothpick tester comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Then, flip out onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely.

Make the glaze: In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter until golden brown, fragrant (should smell nutty) and no longer foamy. Pour butter into a medium bowl. Add confectioner's sugar, vanilla and milk, whisking until smooth and adding more milk if glaze seems to thick. Pour over cooled cake.

To serve: Goes well with milky coffee or strong tea.