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Mac & Cheese Forever

We've loved it for centuries. Now chefs are embracing it too.

June 05, 2002|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Patina, that Melrose Avenue institution, has made one with hand-rolled macaroni and mascarpone cheese. Ammo, a Hollywood spot where you're likely to overhear conversations about personal trainers, does a version with four cheeses and wild mushrooms. During truffle season, Melisse in Santa Monica fills a tuile of melted Parmesan with pasta, Taleggio and truffles.

And when Mimosa, a French bistro on Beverly Boulevard, first put it on the menu, they called it gratine macaroni comme quand on etait petit.

In other words, macaroni and cheese "like when you were little."

Mac and cheese--it might be the last thing you'd expect to find chefs lavishing with attention. But just look though the menus at some of the city's most interesting restaurants and it's clear that macaroni and cheese is the new-old thing of the moment. One chef after another is trying a personal riff on a dish that already has a long and storied past, putting real creative energy into it while maintaining its endearing kid-food qualities.

Of course, whenever ambitious chefs try to put their mark on something we love, some of us start to worry (here they go again). And some of these newfangled versions are rather alarming (thanks, but we'll pass on the version with foie gras). But there are plenty that actually work.

Take the one at the House on Melrose Avenue--a dish made with such finesse that, to the chef's shock, it is helping to make the restaurant's reputation.

"It got on our menu kind of as a joke," says Scooter Kanfer, the chef. "When we were about to open last year, we were all stressed out, and they asked me, 'What do you really feel like eating?' and I said, 'Macaroni and cheese.'

"But it's turned out to be one of my biggest sellers. I go through 30 pounds of cheese a week."

If you're one of the legions who've tasted it, that's no surprise. Kanfer's version--made with luscious goat's milk Cheddar, extra-large pasta shells and a crisp layer of bread crumbs as delicate as a creme brulee crust--is absolutely transcendent.

Mark Peel, who sometimes serves macaroni and cheese at Campanile's Monday-night family dinners, says a lot of the attraction is the fact that it's a touchstone of American home cooking. "Nearly every kid grew up eating it," he says. "I like it a lot, personally. You can use it as a blank slate, you can do a lot of things with it, though you have to have one foot in tradition."

One of its secrets is versatility. Macaroni and cheese has to be close enough to what you grew up on to warm the heart, but beyond that there's a recipe for every taste, from simple mac and Jack to versions spiked with bacon or chutney. It can be chewy with tender pasta or so loaded with cheese it's more like a nacho plate. There's room for Oprah Winfrey's recipe (Munster, Jack, two kinds of Cheddar, Velveeta, two eggs) and Paul Prudhomme's (low-fat Cheddar and cottage cheese).

Still, there are some defining principles for a great one.

"You have to use good cheese, and the sauce should just fill the spaces, it shouldn't flow," Peel says. "And it has to be baked. The best part is the crusty part at the top, which you don't get with a Kraft Dinner."

White sauce enriched with cheese is what makes it macaroni and cheese, but pasta gives it much of its character. Many restaurants, including Marina del Rey's soul food favorite Aunt Kizzy's Back Porch, use larger pastas than the traditional elbow macaroni, such as shells or rigatoni, precisely because they keep the sauce from having a soupy feel; the sauce clings better to the broad surfaces.

And though a lot of us have the particular mild Cheddar flavor of the Kraft Dinner in the back of our minds somewhere, there are other ways to go. "There are basically two schools," says Nick Coe, the former proprietor of Nick's in South Pasadena. "The French way mixes different cheeses. But if you're only using mild Cheddar or American cheese, you have to add onions or something to give it some interest."

Of course, these are just grown-ups' tastes. A children's Web site called Topher's Castle (www.lava surfer.com) has a feature in which kids vote for their favorite macaroni and cheese. They clearly prefer bland, ultra-gooey sauce, and lots of it. It's no accident that the Kraft macaroni and cheese home page (www.kraftfoods.com/the cheesiest/home.html) shows a smiley dinosaur surfing a yellow ocean of cheese sauce.

But then, mac and cheese is a dish that crosses all sorts of demographic lines. It's so all-American that nobody thinks of it as Italian. But it is, or at least it started that way.

The first Italian pasta recipes showed up in the middle-1300s. They had their oddities--the earliest lasagna recipe used leavened dough; macaroni started out as a flat noodle rather than a hollow tube pasta--but they were all served with cheese.

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