Mac is back The old favorite, with a few new twists, is showing up in upscale places. In fact, it was served at the lunch Congress gave President Clinton after his swearing-in.

February 26, 1997|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

It vanished from American tables in the '80s, when mesquite was magic and vegetables were not allowed to grow up. Now it's back, and, like its fellow comfort foods, such as meat loaf and mashed potatoes, it's returned with an attitude.

Macaroni and cheese with an attitude?

Yeah, attitude, as in showing up at the lunch Congress gave President Clinton after his swearing-in ceremony last month -- in timbales made with sheep's milk cheese.

As in teaming up with salsa, black beans and grilled chicken for the most popular dish on the menu at Ruby Tuesday restaurants.

As in making it to the pages of the trendy new "Dean & DeLuca Cookbook," where author David Rosengarten adds fresh vegetables and herbs to penne and Italian fontina cheese.

As in appearing in the culinarily hip Cook's Illustrated magazine this month, "reinvented" in a stove-top version touched with hot pepper sauce and dry mustard.

"Mashed potatoes in 97 forms and macaroni and cheese in several forms are very, very popular today. People love it," said Bill Holman, co-owner of Design Cuisine of Alexandria, Va., the caterer chosen for the presidential luncheon bash. All the recipes were based on historic examples; the recipe for the timbales was taken from a cookbook by Mary Randolph, whose brother married a daughter of Thomas Jefferson.

"Thomas Jefferson loved macaroni and cheese," Holman said.

One of the Capitol luncheon organizers, Tricia Lott, wife of Sen. Trent Lott, R.-Miss., pronounced the timbales "to die for."

Holman said an earlier version of the dish featured goat cheese, but congressional taste testers asked for sheep's milk cheese ,, instead. Holman said other versions of modern mac and cheese substitute penne for elbow macaroni, and Boursin, brie or Saga blue cheese for the standard Cheddar.

Sonora chicken pasta at Ruby Tuesday uses penne, but the cheese is another old favorite -- Velveeta. The dish came about, according to Ken McConnell, the restaurant chain's culinary director in Mobile, Ala., because "we were playing with pasta items." They wanted something spicy, "and everybody loves macaroni and cheese," McConnell said.

Adding salsa to the sauce, and topping the dish with spicy black beans and grilled chicken "made it a little more grown up," he said.

The dish was popular with taste testers, but it was some time before it caught on in the restaurants. But then Ruby Tuesday put out table tents -- those little cards advertising drinks or dishes -- so people could see what the dish looked like, and "it just went through the roof," McConnell said.

Rosengarten said when recipes were being developed for the Dean & DeLuca book -- under the auspices of Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca, whose stores sell upscale produce and groceries in notoriously tasteful surroundings -- "we took a lot of American classics like potpie, meatloaf and macaroni and cheese and tried to find a new twist, or at least to present the very best recipe we could find."

In the book, he introduces the recipe with the comment, "A lot of people consider macaroni and cheese the ultimate comfort food, but it has never enchanted us. We find the traditional American version relentless: You're lost in a sea of dairy, with no way out. But add a few bright vegetables to the casserole, use a grown-up cheese with real flavor, bind it all with a luscious browned-butter bechamel packed with aromatic herbs -- and we think you've got something extraordinary that really may make you feel safe again."

The stove-top mac and cheese that did enchant Cook's Illustrated came from a book by John Thorne, called "Simple Cooking" (Penguin, 1989). In its usual thorough way, Cook's differentiated between two types of macaroni and cheese, the traditional bechamel or white-sauce type, and the custard type, like Thorne's.

They tinkered slightly with Thorne's recipe, subtracting some of the cheese (he used a whole pound) and using a Wisconsin Cheddar. They tested other cheeses, but liked the milder flavor better: "Macaroni and cheese made with Gruyere was so strong we couldn't even eat it." And they note that using highly processed cheeses, like American (or Velveeta) made the dish creamier.

Cook's also taste-tested 11 boxed and frozen brands of macaroni and cheese, and didn't care much for any of them (although they are said to be highly rated among children, some of whom won't eat anything else).

But, Cook's said, "Anybody who's willing to make macaroni and cheese from scratch is an easy sell once they try this recipe. The same preparation time and a few dollars more buy you the difference between an institutional experience and the real MacCoy."

Here are recipes for some of the updated versions of macaroni and cheese. The first is from Design Cuisine.

Macaroni and cheese timbales

Makes 16

1 pound elbow macaroni, cooked

4 ounces sheep's milk cheese (see note)

1 quart heavy cream

9 whole eggs

1/2 cup red onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup scallion (green onions), finely chopped

1/4 cup chopped parsley

salt and pepper to taste

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