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Sep 30, 2014
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By the Book: Michael Ruhlman’s Mac and Cheese with Soubise

March 5th 05:03pm, 2013

“Only by reducing cooking to its core techniques can we begin to understand the infinite nuances that contribute to making something good, and what elevates the good to the great. Cooking can be broken down into these few parts, and doing so is enormously useful no matter what level you cook at – whether you’re a beginning cook or an accomplished one.”

In these two sentences, Michael Ruhlman summarizes the premise of his new cookbook Ruhlman’s Twenty. Ruhlman attended the Culinary Institute of America in order to “write a book about what you need to know to become a chef.” This cookbook lays bare the 20 techniques that he considers essential for operating in today’s kitchen. (Technique No. 1: Thinking.) While some skills – roasting, braising or poaching – are expected, others like egg, butter, sugar and acid are not. Ruhlman explains that while the latter are ingredients, they are also tools, and using tools is technique.

I opted to prepare Ruhlman’s recipe for Mac and Cheese with Soubise because 1) It is still winter coat weather, thus the time for hearty sustenance has not yet ended; 2) I wanted to pit Ruhlman’s version against my current mac-n-cheese fave (Thanks, Joe Bonwich.); and 3) Every home cook needs an onion tutorial every now and then.

Ruhlman devotes an entire chapter to the onion, which he considers to be “the chef’s secret weapon” and a “powerful flavoring device’ that “transforms food in many ways, in nearly every style of cuisine around the globe.” Caramelized onions are what transform the typical mac-n-cheese sauce, béchamel, to a soubise. Ruhlman reminds readers that caramelizing this root vegetable takes times; he also recommends an enameled cast-iron pan because it resists sticking, which leaves the caramelization on the onions instead of the pan.

After adhering to Ruhlman’s instructions on caramelizing onions in the recipe and even in the chapter introduction, the now browned, sweet and savory onions are stirred into the béchamel, which is then puréed. The sauce meets the Gruyere and then gets tossed with al dente pasta, poured into a pan, topped with more cheese and panko, and baked some 40 minutes until the cheese turns golden.

How does this souped-up sauce and its end result rate against my current fave? Soubise supersedes béchamel. But this version was over salted for my palate. I bow down to Ruhlman for prescribing fingered pinches instead of teaspoons of salt (Know thy salt, Ruhlman teaches you in Chapter Two.), so finger down on the salt, axe the fish sauce and this mac-n-cheese just might take top honors.

The takeaway on this book, however, is not whether Ruhlman gets a No. 1 ranking for this particular dish. “If you know these fundamentals, there’s very little you won’t be able to do in the kitchen,” Ruhlman writes in the introduction. Those words – and this book – should be met with open arms by any cook who seeks a personal trainer to help tone and condition her culinary muscles.

Mac and Cheese with Soubise
6 Servings

9 Tbsp. butter, separated
1 medium onion, sliced
Kosher salt
1 shallot, roughly chopped
3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1½ cups milk
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
3 Tbsp. sherry
1 Tbsp. fish sauce
1 to 2 tsp. dry mustard
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
6 or 7 gratings fresh nutmeg
¼ tsp. cayenne (optional)
¼ tsp. smoked paprika (optional, substitute cayenne if you wish)
12 oz. macaroni, penne or cellentani
1 lb. Comté, Gruyere, Emmenthaller, cheddar or a combination of these cheeses, grated
¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional)
½ cup panko breadcrumbs

• Make the soubise: Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a medium pan over medium heat and add the onion and a four-fingered pinch of salt. Cook, stirring until the onion is nicely caramelized.
• In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 more tablespoons of butter. Add the shallot and a three-fingered pinch of salt, and cook until some of the water has cooked out of the butter, about 1 minute. Add the flour; stir to mix it with the butter, and cook until the mixture has taken on a toasted aroma, a few minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk and stir with a flat-edged wooden spoon or spatula, to make sure the flour doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan, until the sauce comes up to a simmer and thickens, a few minutes more.
• Stir in a three-fingered pinch of salt, the white wine vinegar, sherry, fish sauce, dry mustard, black pepper, nutmeg, cayenne and smoked paprika (if using). Add the onion to the sauce and stir until heated through.
• Transfer the sauce to a blender and process until puréed, or purée in the pan with a hand blender. Keep the sauce warm over low heat. You should have 2 cups.
• Cook the pasta al dente, drain, then return it to the pot. Use 1 tablespoon of melted butter to spread on a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or another appropriately sized, ovenproof vessel.
• Sprinkle half of the Comté cheese into the soubise and stir until melted. Remove from the heat and pour over the pasta. Toss the pasta and pour it into the baking dish. Top with the remaining Comté. The pasta can be baked immediately or later in the day, or it can be covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days before baking.
• Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
• If using the Parmigiano-Reggiano, toss it with 2 tablespoons of melted butter.
• Sprinkle the pasta with the Parmigiano-Reggiano. In a small bowl, toss the panko with the remaining 2 tablespoons of melted butter and spread this over the top. Cover with aluminum foil and bake until heated through, about 30 minutes (longer if it has been chilled in the refrigerator). Remove the foil and bake until the cheese is nicely browned, or turn on the broiler/grill and broil/grill until the top is browned, 15 to 20 more minutes.
• Serve immediately.

Reprinted with permission from Chronicle Books.

What is the cooking technique you most want to master and why? Tell us about it in the comments section below for a chance to win a copy of Ruhlman’s Twenty. We’ll announce the winner in next week’s By the Book column.

And now, we’d like to congratulate Lizzie, whose comment on last week’s By the Book has won her a copy of Rook Cooks. Lizzie, keep an eye out for an email from the Sauce crew. 

By Ligaya Figueras

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5 Responses to “By the Book: Michael Ruhlman’s Mac and Cheese with Soubise”

  1. Hao Says:
    March 5th, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    i want to learn how to make good chinese dumpling dough. that or chinese hand pulled noodle dough. those would be really cool to do right.

  2. Julie Ridlon Says:
    March 5th, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    I’d like to learn how to make mochi and work with glutinous rice

  3. Cherie Says:
    March 6th, 2013 at 3:50 am

    Ironically, this is one of my New Year resolutions: to learn a new cooking technique a month! I started off with learning how to debone a chicken breast quickly without losing most of the meat and last month, learned how to make home pasta dough and ravioli. This month, I think I’m going to learn how to correctly hone a knife. I think what I want to master though are the French sauces: hollandaise/bernaise, bechamel, veloute, Espagnole, and tomato.

  4. Katie Says:
    March 10th, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    I’d love to master the mother sauces: bechamel, velouté, and espagnole. If you can master those you can make any protein or veg look impressive merely by pairing with an appropriate sauce.

  5. Lisa Says:
    March 11th, 2013 at 8:49 pm

    I would like to master basic knife skills. That is, I want to be able to quickly, efficiently and accurately mince, dice, julienne and chiffonade. These skills are used daily, and must be mastered to progress as a cook.

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