Featured Wisconsin Cheeses: Mascarpone, Fontiago
I know this may sound strange to some as many people don’t necessarily consider macaroni and cheese as anything but a savory dish. Nevertheless, the concept of sweet or savory-sweet macaroni and cheese has been around for a long time. Dishes in which egg noodles are baked in sweetened dairy-based cream sauce exist in different cuisines around the world, mainly in Eastern Europe. And though the names by which this type of dish is called vary just as greatly as the cuisines of which it’s part, I simply call it, “delicious.”
Sometime, in my silliness, I fantasize about having a Russian grandmother. I called her, “Bubba,” and she called me, “Lilechka.” In my fantasy, Баба made the best Кугель in the whole world and her little Лалечка just gobbled it up, along with all kinds of Eastern European treats, with glee. Don’t worry about me, though, I limit myself to no more than 10 goofy thoughts like this per day.
In reality, being a purebred Thai, born and raised in the capital city of Thailand and darned proud of it, I didn’t grow up eating Kugel ( קוגל or, to make the throat work a bit harder, קוגעל), but you bet I’m making up for lost time. I mean, what’s not to like about Kugel? I can see how certain food items could only be appreciated by means of early exposure of the palate or even genetic predisposition.* But noodles baked in gooey, creamy, cheesy sauce? One needs no more than functional taste buds to appreciate that kind of sublimity.
There are many different ways to make kugel. You could ask ten people to bring a pan of kugel, made according to their own family recipe, to a potluck and I’m willing to bet that there will be no two identical kugels among those ten. This also means there isn’t any consensus on what an ideal kugel is supposed to look and taste like even though, from my experience, people tend to use their childhood kugel as the one and only standard and their grandmother or mother as the sole arbiter of good kugel. There are some rough guidelines, but in the end, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, deliciousness is in the mouth of the eater.
After having sampled innumerable kugels, I’ve found that the ones I like the most are not overly sweet and contain one of two salty elements. I adore the savory-sweet flavor combination. When the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board contacted me to come up with a recipe showcasing the deliciousness of Wisconsin-made cheeses, I agonized over what to make for, like, 3 seconds before the conclusion was reached.
Our macaroni and cheese recipe is inspired by the coconut caramelized apples with 5-spice powder which I made back in the fall this year. The recipe has been greatly simplified so as to not make this sweet macaroni and cheese too complicated. After all, the cheeses and noodles are the stars of the show; the spiced apple compote, as delicious as it is, is just the add-in.
The mixture of Mascarpone Cheese, sour cream, and eggs is used to mimic the traditional Béchamel. The spiced apple compote provides additional moisture and sweetness. Grated Wisconsin Fontiago® Cheese goes on top to create that much-loved crust that everybody likes. It also provides a subtle savory element to the dish.
Have you had Fontiago cheese, by the way? I have only recently discovered this Wisconsin-made cheese. The name probably clues you in as to what it tastes like: a combination of the Italian Fontina and Asiago. Fontiago combines the sharpness of Asiago and the mellow flavor of Fontina. The mildly “nutty” flavor of Fontiago balances out the sweetness of the sugar, the sweet-tangy apple compote, and the creaminess of Mascarpone and sour cream very well.
The result is a kugel-inspired macaroni and cheese that is warm, gooey, and cheesy right out of the oven. The flavor is only mildly sweet which is how I like it. The Fontiago cheese on the top melts like a dream and forms the cheesy “strings” that never fail to make kids and adults alike go, “Ooh.“**
Left to cool down a bit, or refrigerated, the baked noodles firm up and become more dense. You can cut a piece and pick it up to eat with your hand. I like it both ways.
Spiced Apple Macaroni & Cheese
3 medium (1 pound) firm, sweet apples***
2 tablespoons butter
10 tablespoons brown sugar, divided
2 pieces of whole star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
5 to 6 whole allspice berries
8 ounces mini ziti or mini elbow pasta
8 ounces Wisconsin Mascarpone cheese, softened
1/2 cup sour cream
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup (3 ounces) Wisconsin Fontiago Cheese, grated
Powdered sugar and sour cream, for garnish
Prepare the spiced apple compote by peeling and coring the apples. Chop them into small pieces the size of raisins. In a skillet, over medium heat, melt the butter and 5 tablespoons brown sugar; add the chopped apples, star anise, cinnamon sticks and allspice berries; let the mixture simmer gently. The apples will soften and the melted sugar and butter will slowly evaporate.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil, add pasta and cook just until al dente (cooked through, yet firm) according to the directions on the package. Overcooked pasta will result in noodles that fall apart too easily after baking. Drain the noodles well and set aside.
Once the apples have reduced in volume to about 1 1/2 cups of compote, with the consistency of loose fruit preserve, take the pan off the heat and remove and discard all of the spices; set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9×13-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray or butter.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the Mascarpone Cheese with the sour cream, beaten eggs, remaining brown sugar, salt and vanilla; stir just to combine. Add the cooked pasta to the cheese mixture along with the apple compote; mix until the pasta is thoroughly coated with the cheese mixture and the apple compote is well distributed. Pour the pasta mixture into the prepared dish and sprinkle the top with grated Fontiago Cheese.
Cover a piece of aluminum foil and bake the macaroni and cheese for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake, uncovered, for another 20 minutes or until the top is browned.
Serve warm or at room temperature and garnish with powdered sugar dusted on top and a dollop of sour cream, whipped cream, or Crème Fraîche.
*Thai shrimp paste and pickled ham hocks of the US deep South came to mind.
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**Pizza Hut came to Thailand when I was a little kid and I still vividly remember their commercial. The family sat together at the table. A huge pizza is in the middle. The father stands up and lifts one of the pre-cut pizza slices from the pan to a plate. The warm, melted Mozzarella forms long cheesy strings all the way from the pan to the plate. I sat in front of our TV set, mesmerized. My eyeballs were the size of ostrich eggs and were on the verge of popping out of the socket.
***Pretty much anything will work except Red Delicious or Granny Smith apples.
Fontiago, Macaroni & Cheese, Mascarpone, Recipe, Wisconsin Cheese
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