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Microwave . . .

Fast, Flavorful Cheese Cookery

October 02, 1986|DIANA WILLIAMS HANSEN | Hansen is a Louisville-based cooking consultant specializing in microwaving

How can cheese be incorporated into a microwave cuisine? To start with the basics, a microwave oven can warm up cheese from the refrigerator without melting it. Cheese tastes and slices better if it is close to room temperature.

When exposing cheese to microwave energy, use a setting no higher than MEDIUM-HIGH (70% power), and watch to prevent overheating. To soften wedges of cheese, for example, start timing at about 30 seconds, then time for another 30 seconds or so until the cheese feels warm and is soft but not melted. Use MEDIUM (50% power) to soften cream cheese and start checking at one minute.

Cheese also melts well in the microwave if the same timing and watching precautions are taken. Don't overheat cheese or it will shrink and toughen.

Overheating Also a Problem

Although overheating also is a problem when cheese is melted conventionally, it can happen more quickly in the microwave. When adding grated or shredded cheese to a casserole cooked on HIGH, avoid toughening the cheese by sprinkling it on at the last minute. Or add cheese to a hot casserole as it's taken from the oven. It will melt as the casserole stands. When microwaving a plate of nachos, allow about one minute per cup of cheese used in the dish and microwave at MEDIUM-HIGH.

Layering cheese between other foods is a good idea for microwaving. When combining easy-to-melt cheese with dense hard-to-heat meat slices in a sandwich, for example, place the cheese in the very center of the sandwich between two meat slices, where it will be somewhat shielded from overcooking. When making cracker canapes topped with very moist seafood spreads or meat salads, place a slice of cheese over the cracker before adding the topping. Due to the penetrating microwaves, the cheese will melt as the topping heats. The melted cheese will act as a barrier against moisture from the topping and keep the cracker crisper.

Glories of the Microwave

Cheese melts well into sauces, and a rich cheese sauce is one of the glories of the microwave oven. Both of the recipes below are based on this ambrosial concoction. If desired, adapt either cheese sauce as a topping over a fluffy three-minute microwaved potato, too.

When making this recipe fresh for company, I use a 2 1/2-quart oval microwaveable casserole with tall sides. But if you are making this ahead to reheat later, a shallow dish, such as a 12x8-inch rectangular one, is best. Macaroni and cheese is a dense mixture which does not conduct heat readily. In a thick layer--especially one that is cold--it's hard for the heat to conduct to the center of the food. A dish that's shallow exposes a larger surface area for the microwaves to penetrate and heat food evenly.

MACARONI AND FOUR CHEESES

6 cups hot water

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound elbow macaroni

1/4 cup butter

1/4 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 1/2 cups milk

1/2 pound Fontina cheese, cut into chunks

3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 cups ricotta cheese

1/2 pound mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon paprika

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Combine water, oil and macaroni in 3-quart microwave-safe casserole. Cover and microwave on HIGH 13 to 17 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Remove cover after about 10 minutes if macaroni threatens to boil over. When done, macaroni will be al dente. Drain in colander.

Place butter, flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg in 2-quart microwave-safe casserole or measuring bowl. Microwave on HIGH 1 minute until butter is melted and mixture can be whisked smooth. Whisk in milk and continue microwaving on HIGH 5 to 8 minutes longer, whisking every 2 minutes, until mixture is thickened and has bubbled in all areas.

Add fontina cheese and 1/4 cup Parmesan to sauce. Stir until cheeses are melted and blended, then stir in cooked macaroni.

Spread half of ricotta in buttered 2 1/2-quart microwave-safe casserole or 12x8-inch microwave-safe dish. Cover with half of macaroni and cheese, then mozzarella. Repeat with remaining ricotta and macaroni.

In small dish or cup, stir together remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese with paprika and cayenne. Sprinkle evenly over casserole. Cover with wax paper and microwave on HIGH 8 to 12 minutes until hot throughout and all cheeses are melted. Makes about 8 servings.

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This rich pudding tastes like pimiento cheese and crackers. In the South, it's traditionally served for brunch with eggs, bacon, steamed broccoli or asparagus spears and coffeecake. If desired, substitute this casserole for potatoes, rice or pasta.

SOUTHERN CHEESE PUDDING

1/2 cup butter

4 eggs

1 1/2 cups fine crumbs from round buttery-type crackers (about 50 crackers)

1/3 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups milk

2 cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

2 (4-ounce) jars sliced pimientos, drained

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