Creating great memories: John Pierce's South Indian Mac and Cheese
May 16, 2012
For most of my career, I’ve had the pleasure of working for The Old Farmer’s Almanac and its amazingly devoted and talented staff. I’ve met some great people and made some good friends. Learned a lot. Laughed more. It’s pretty much exactly what you would think that working with The Old Farmer’s Almanac would be like … except that no one wears overalls and there aren’t any farm animals.
One of the first people I met at the Almanac was John Pierce, who, during his 25+ years with the book, made not only a career at The Old Farmer’s Almanac, but also a life. Raised on a small, family-owned farm in Massachusetts, he went on to study botany at Dartmouth College. These experiences, coupled with his thoughtful nature and curiosity about life’s wonders, made John and the Almanac uniquely suited for one another.
John was a “foodie” before such a word existed. He appreciated every type of culinary delight—from the Indian flavors of his mother-in-law’s family recipes to the stick-to-your-ribs joy of American comfort food.
Several years ago, John was visiting Seattle and he and I took a tour of Pike Place Market, which included lunch at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese where we (of course!) had their famous “World’s Best Macaroni and Cheese.” After the meal, weaving through the tourist crowd, John shared an idea he had for an Almanac cookbook: macaroni and cheese. Short of a book of recipes for apple pie, what would be more perfect to bear The Old Farmer’s Almanac name?
Unfortunately, that cookbook never came to pass (yet—I and my taste buds are still hoping!), but I like to think that the following recipe was born out of that idea. John created it for a national contest before his untimely and sudden passing in 2008.
This South Indian–Style Mac and Cheese is a real treat—bold spices and flavors fused with a creamy cheese sauce to create what is truly a grown-up take on a classic dish. Deservedly, this recipe won third place in a Better Homes & Gardens macaroni & cheese reader recipe contest.
When someone loves to cook, you can taste it in the food they bring to the table. I think that the same is true of a recipe—it may be words on paper to some, but the imprint of a cook’s passion remains. It also has a remarkable power: to create great food, good times, and invaluable memories. John would’ve liked that.
John Pierce’s South Indian–Style Mac and Cheese
Note: I added a little bit of kale because this was eaten as a main dish. If you wish to do the same, add 2 cups of prepared kale (washed, stems removed) to the macaroni during the last couple of minutes of cooking. Drain macaroni and kale together and add to cheese sauce at the same time as identified in the recipe. If you're interested in learning more about cooking greens, please see the related links.
1/2 pound (2 cups) dried elbow macaroni, cooked
1 large clove garlic
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk, divided
8 ounces coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
1/4 cup freshly grated Asiago cheese
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
Put the garlic and ginger into a food processor. Purée, adding as little water as necessary to make a paste. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 13x9-inch baking dish or 2-1/2 quart casserole. Combine the garam masala, salt, turmeric, cayenne, and black pepper in a small bowl. Set aside. Melt the butter over low heat in a large nonstick saucepan. Stir in the garlic-ginger paste as the butter is melting and cook for 30 seconds, then stir in the garam masala spices and flour. Cook over medium-low heat for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add the milk, 1 cup at a time, and cook, whisking often and letting the sauce thicken between each cup. Whisk in the cheddar, half at a time, and cook until it melts. Remove the pan from the heat. Pour the sauce over the macaroni and stir well. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish and smooth the top. In a small bowl, combine the bread crumbs, Asiago cheese, and paprika. Sprinkle evenly over the dish. Bake for 25 minutes or until bubbly. Makes 6 servings.