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I’m crazy about homemade macaroni and cheese.  I adore it.  Once I start eating mac and cheese, sprinkled with a bit of salt, I don’t ever want to stop.

My favorite macaroni and cheese is always pure and unadorned.  The modern twists and 21st-century updates lure me from time to time, but I always go back to the holy trinity: macaroni, cheddar, and milk.

Strangely, I’m still searching for the perfect recipe.  I tend to move through mac and cheese phases.  For a while, I made the NY Times crusty macaroni and cheese, which is, very simply, a pound of pasta held together with a pound and a half of cheese, with a little bit of milk thrown in.  It’s very much like the family recipe made by my mom and my aunt Barbara, and you really can’t go wrong with it, but I eventually wanted to find something a bit creamier.

So I switched to a fussier version of macaroni and cheese with Westphalian ham, lemon zest, and thyme.  A nice change of pace, but a flash in the pan.

When I discovered Patricia Wells’ macaroni gratin in The Paris cookbook, I thought I’d found the one.  It’s so simple and rich and creamy with a gruyere crust and fresh chives.  But I slowly realized that it’s just not quite homey enough to become a staple.  I missed the cheddar cheese flavor that dominated all the macaroni and cheeses of my youth.

Next, I fell in love the NY Times creamy macaroni and cheese.  It’s so thickly cheesy and robust and it seems to work with whatever cheese you have lying around the house.  Alas, the last time I made it, I could sense a slight lessening of its power over me.

I’m not sure where to turn.  I’ve tried the popular recipe from Martha Stewart, but that’s not for me.  A local restaurant recently published their mac and cheese recipe in a cookbook called Chefs of the Triangle — it calls for three cups of heavy cream and three cups of cheese (Gruyere, Asiago, and cheddar) for a half-pound of pasta.  I’m not one for cooking light, but I also don’t own a defibrillator.

It feels like there should be a personal ad designed to address this predicament.  “Desperately seeking perfect macaroni and cheese.  Prefer shapely cavatappi and classic elbows.  Must have at least a 1:1 ratio of pasta to cheese.  Open to high-maintenance roux bases and unusual cheese combinations.”

Since I know of no mac and cheese support groups out there, I put my request to you.  Send me your recipes for macaroni and cheese! It’s getting cold.  We’re all hunkering down for the long winter.  I, for one, can’t imagine how I’ll get through the next few months without a delicious, cheesy, go-to recipe for macaroni and cheese.  Think of it as a public service.  Help?!

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My husband has a few dishes that he makes with total confidence: ice cream, no-knead bread, mojitos, and anything on the grill.  He occasionally ventures outside his regular rotation, when I’m not elbowing him out of the kitchen, but most of the time he sticks with the tried and true.  And to be fair, “anything on the grill” covers a wide array of great meals: fish, chicken, hamburgers, steak, fajitas, flatbread.  He’s no slouch.

But he rarely bakes.  Maybe it’s because I’m always out in front on that one, my head swimming with dessert plans, leaving little room for whimsy on his part.

Well, step aside, ice cream, because Dave has a new dessert in the repertoire.  I know this because he made these gorgeous little tarts twice already this week.  Peaches and blueberries are in season here, so that’s what we used, and it was lovely.  I’m sure these are also wonderful with apples, plums, apricots, mangoes, pineapple, bananas, berries, cherries, figs, and the list goes on.

This recipe is a gem.  It requires no measuring, whisking, beating, tempering, sifting, rolling, chilling, or pouring.  You take a piece of puff pastry out of the freezer, cover it with slices of fruit, dot it with some butter and brown sugar, and pop it in the oven for 20 minutes.  I can’t think of a dessert that comes together more quickly than this one, or that requires less technique, but the results are stunning.  And you can make one at a time, if you like.  If you’ve mastered the grilled cheese sandwich, you can make this dessert.

Apparently it’s oh-so-Parisian to eat this dessert out of hand.  We tried that, sashaying around the house and crowing “ooh-la-la.”  We also tried it on a plate with Dorie’s burnt sugar ice cream.  Yum.

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Thank you Jessica of My Baking Heart for choosing a dessert that has instantly become a new family recipe.  You can find the recipe on her blog or on page 319 of Dorie’s cookbook, Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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As a 20-year-old, I was 40 pounds overweight.  It was fine, you know, not a big deal.  Oh, I suppose if you care about your appearance, want to be attractive to 20-year-old young men, or want to fit into your Belgian roommate’s cool clothes, well, then you’re sunk.  But other than that.

I eventually lost the weight, but it wasn’t through dieting.  I can’t diet.  It’s not an option.  I hate the denial.  The boring food.  The scale.  The early morning resolutions that crumble by day’s end.

So I devised a plan.  I examined every portion I mindlessly heaped onto my plate, grabbed a spoon, and put half of it back.  Then, after inhaling that smaller portion — and this is the crucial part of my plan — I used every ounce of willpower in my substantial frame to resist going back for more.  Instead, I gave myself a 10-minute window to withstand the obsession with getting more food.  If I could get past that 10-minute danger zone where I wanted more, much more, now, the fixation would fade and my mind would find something else to do.  And I reached a good weight.

I still have to think about what I eat every day.  I have to stop myself from pouring a second bowl of cereal in the morning (especially when I’m having Lucky Charms — is there some addictive ingredient in that stuff?  Somebody needs to conduct a study…); or adding way too many potato chips next to my sandwich at lunch; or eating tremendous mouthfuls of some delicious dessert straight from the pan.  And so it goes.  My bad eating habits are still there, waiting for a chance to exert themselves, but I mostly keep them under control.

However.

Certain desserts seem to activate my very bad habits and all hell breaks loose.  I forget about the half-portions.  I forget about not going for seconds.  I forget about the 10-minute cooling-off period. No, I stand over the pan and consume bite after bite, cramming it in, until I suddenly come to, shocked at myself.  What, am I a wolverine now?  Raiding, tearing, scratching, devouring.  It’s not pretty.

The Baked brownie has joined the ranks of a few other saboteurs that I allow myself to cook on a need-to-have basis only (Boston cream pie, whoopie pies, macaroni and cheese).

It’s the perfect brownie: dark, fudgy, soft, with intense chocolate flavor.  Their beautiful dark, fudgy, soft, and chewy quality permeates the entire brownie, so there are no dry and crumbly edges.

I’m so in love with these.  This week, inspired by a recipe I saw on David Lebovitz’s site, I added dollops of dulce de leche to the brownie batter.  The results were wonderful, but the dulce de leche was overshadowed by the character of the chocolate brownie itself.  That’s saying something, when caramel doesn’t improve a chocolate dessert.

Everything else I’ve tried from the Baked cookbook has been amazing, by the way.  Try the rice krispie treats with peanut butter and milk chocolate topping and you’ll see what I mean.

So now I’m 41 years old, and I can’t get by on the portion control thing alone.  I belong to a running group.  I go to the gym.  Still, as I get older, I follow a simple rule: if it’s worth the calories, have at it.  This one is worth it for me.

Baked Brownies

Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

Yield: 24 brownies

The Baked brownie is a beautiful thing. It has won the hearts and minds of many people, been featured on the pages of O Magazine as a favorite thing, and won best brownie by the folks at America’s Test Kitchen and the Today Show. Our brownie really owes many kudos to our friend and superstar pastry chef Lesli Heffler-Flick. She created the original ultimate brownie for us. It is dense, chocolatey, and slightly fudgy, and we are forever grateful to her for letting us adapt her recipe.

Baked Note: A great brownie is easy to make, but you have to be aware of several factors. 1. Use a dark cocoa powder, like Valrhona. A pale, light-colored cocoa does not have enough depth. 2. Make sure your eggs are room temperature and do not overbeat them into the batter.  3. Make sure you check your brownies often while baking. Once the brownies have been overbaked slightly, they have reached the point of no return.

1 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons dark cocoa powder
11 ounces quality dark chocolate (60-72%), chopped coarsely
8 ounces butter (2 sticks), cut into 1 inch cubes
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup light brown sugar
5 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter the sides and bottom of a glass or light colored metal pan 9x13x2 pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, the salt, and cocoa powder.

Configure a large sized double boiler. Place the chocolate, the butter, and the instant espresso powder in the bowl of the double boiler and stir occasionally until the chocolate and butter are completely melted and combined. Turn off the heat, but keep the bowl over the water of the double boiler and add both sugars. Whisk the sugars until completely combined and remove the bowl from the pan. Mixture should be room temperature.

Add three eggs to the chocolate/butter mixture and whisk until just combined. Add the remaining eggs and whisk until just combined. Add the vanilla and stir until combined. Do not over beat the batter at this stage or your brownies will be cakey.

Sprinkle the flour/cocoa/salt mixture over the chocolate. Using a spatula (do not use a whisk!) fold the dry into the wet until there is just a trace amount of the flour/cocoa mix visible.

Pour the mixture into the pan and smooth the top with your spatula. Bake the brownies for 30 minutes (rotate the pan half-way through baking) and check to make sure the brownies are completely done by sticking a toothpick into the center of the pan. The brownies are done when the toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs.

Cool the brownies completely before cutting and serving.

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There are nights where I’m confounded by the thought: brownies or chocolate chip cookies?  I draw on all of my mental tricks to puzzle through this conundrum.  First, I close my eyes and imagine a plate of one or the other being put in front of me.  How do I feel?  Happy?  Or a tiny bit disappointed?  This usually works.  It’s the same trick I use at a restaurant when I can’t decide between the warm chocolate souffle cake or the… well… bad example.  Nothing ever beats out a warm chocolate souffle cake.

The point is, these two entities battle it out on a regular basis in my kitchen.  Frankly, the chocolate chip cookies usually win.  I’ve grown up on chocolate chip cookies.  I think they were one of the first things my brother and I ever learned to bake from scratch.  We had a hand-written recipe taped to the inside of our yellow kitchen cabinet for years and years and we never strayed from that recipe.  I wish we still had that little slip of paper.  It seems somehow important now, imbued with historical significance.

When my family gathers together for any reason, I usually set two sticks of butter out on the counter as an encouragement to my brother.  Make chocolate chip cookies.  On the night of his arrival, I’ll ask my mom in a panicky tone, “Did you buy the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies?”

“Yes, we have everything we need.”

Such security and comfort in those words.

This week’s recipe seemed like the perfect resolution.  Here it was, a dessert that combines chocolate chip cookies and brownies.  No more staring into the pantry, trying to divine my deepest desires.  Let’s have both!

But you know, it’s just not that easy.  I liked these brownies.  They’re delicious.  I gave these brownies the kind of treatment reserved for my most cherished desserts: i.e. eat a generous piece in the living room; return to pan of brownies in the kitchen, ostensibly to cover it with plastic wrap; notice a jagged edge; slice the edge so it’s even; notice that the brownie edge on the other side of the pan was cut at an odd angle; straighten the edge so its square…. My favorite part is the soft, warm center of brownies, not the crusty edges, so I tend to create an ever-widening square in the very center of the pan.  (Needless to say, each of the slivers that comes from a perfectly carved edge goes straight into my mouth; otherwise, really, what’s the point?)

But the chocolate chip cookie vs. brownie conundrum will not be put to rest by this hybrid dessert.  I don’t know, I think I like it that way.  Each one is a perfect dessert all on its own, and if, at the end of the day, I have the privilege of agonizing over which one to bake, I’ll take it.

By all means, make these chipster-topped brownies and judge for yourself.  Maybe some of my fellow bakers with deep inner conflicts will finally find peace.  They’re even better with ice cream and hot fudge on top.  For the recipe, check out Beth’s blog, Supplicious, or pp. 94-95 of Dorie’s book, Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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Someone once said to me, “There are lemon people and there are chocolate people, and they’re not the same animal.”  It struck a chord, because I’m so deeply identified as a chocolate person, it’s always been unfathomable to me that someone would order anything else for dessert.

Lo, and behold, I married a bona fide, living, breathing, lemonophile.  He goes crazy for lemon bars, lemon souffles, lemon desserts of all kinds.  He likes chocolate, but citrus is his first love.  Maybe it’s from all those years growing up near orange groves in central Florida.

The man could write a dissertation on creamsicles.  To me, creamsicles always tasted like baby aspirin, but hey, no accounting for taste.  [Egads, I just did a quick search for creamsicles and came up with nada.  Is it possible they’ve died and gone to creamsicle heaven?]

I remember we went to Magnolia Grill in Durham, NC, and after studying Karen Barker’s world-class dessert menu, he announced that he was going to get the “pink grapefruit napoleon.”  I laughed out loud, snorting on the in breath, thinking he was such a card.  He wasn’t laughing.  He loved it.  (I, meanwhile, ordered the barcelona tart: chocolate, almond, and sea salt.  Delicious.)  Lemon person.  Chocolate person.

Anyway, these lemon cup custards are just the thing for my husband.  But what about the cook?  Moi?  I had a little bit of chocolate frosting left over from last week’s chocolate armagnac cake (I’m not a pack rat, far from it, but I don’t let chocolate ganache go to waste under any circumstances), and voila, a perfect marriage was born.  Creamy vanilla custard, dreamy chocolate drizzled on top.  Works for me!

These custards were ridiculously easy to make.  I pulled the sauce together while my kids ate veggie sticks in the kitchen, then popped it in the water bath for 40 minutes.  It’s a humble little dessert, just as custard is meant to be.  Check out the recipe at The Way the Cookie Crumbles.

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Aunt Rose’s Spaghetti

This recipe comes from my dad.  We’ve made this spaghetti for as long as I can remember and it’s always good.  It comes from my great Aunt Rose, as you’ll see:

If you’re looking for comfort food that’s quick and easy, this is it. Aunt Rose was a family legend, an outsized woman with an outsized personality, full of energy and full of fun. I was one in a long line of relatives who worked in her fancyshmancy grocery store, following in the footsteps of my mother (who Aunt Rose called “Miss Officiency”) and my Uncle Al.

Every Saturday I’d take the E Train to 53rd Street and walk uptown to Winter’s Market, on the corner of 71st and Third. My job was to help deliver food to Aunt Rose’s customers, whose cooks had called in their order for the day. Nearly all her customers lived on Park or Fifth Avenues.

Tony and I would drive over from Third, double park the van on a side-street, and head for the “service entrance.” Once in the basement we were glad to get out of the cold but not so pleased with the stifling heat of the furnaces and the stinky garbage cans. Our goal was the “service elevator” – the Rockefellers, the Guests and the other millionaires had their own, marble-paneled elevator, guarded by a doorman who stood outside the front lobby. Once upstairs we’d deliver our food to flirtatious Irish and Swedish cooks.

My aunt’s apartment was just around the corner from the store. At lunchtime Cora, my aunt’s cook (and perhaps this should really be called “Cora’s spaghetti”), would bring her a Mason jar filled with steaming hot spaghetti; Aunt Rose ate it right out of the jar. It was great then, and it’s just as wonderful now.

Aunt Rose’s Spaghetti

Made famous by (who else?) Aunt Rose, of New York City.

Ingredients

1 pound spaghetti

1 pound sharp yellow cheddar

2 28-oz. cans whole tomatoes in their juice

Lots of freshly ground black pepper

Grate the cheddar.  Cut up the whole tomatoes into big chunks, reserving the juice.  When the spaghetti is cooked (7 minutes), drained, and still steaming, add the grated cheddar and stir until it melts. Add the canned tomatoes with their juice, and a generous grinding of black pepper and salt. Serve hot.

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