Mac' and Cheese

A journey into community.

Jaime and I have been watching the documentary series Cooked on Netflix which is an adaption of the book of the same name by Michael Pollen. The series is an exploration of cooking and food culture from historical and cultural views. It depicts the differences in wealthy societies' methods and ideals of cooking versus those of societies with less wealth. It also delves into the history, methodologies and traditions behind common foods and that of the processed food industry.

It has been a particularly fascinating series and I highly recommend it anyone who has yet to watch it. I hope to read the book soon, but it's on the tail end of a long list.

The discussion of industrialized food presented in the series has been absolutely fascinating from multiple angles. It discusses (among many other things) the social change that needed to take place in the last century around the division of household labour as women joined the workforce and how the food industry was there to pick up the burden before that discussion could really be resolved. The series shines a light on the cost of this transition by showing the systemic increase of processed food consumption and effectual obesity that has resulted from the shift of one of our most basic human practices. "One of the problems with industrial cookery is that they take these really wonderful but labor intense foods, like french-fries, and they cook them so well and so cheaply that you can have them every day." (Michael Pollan)

I love to cook, but even I admit to a sometimes-more-than weekly indulgence in take-out food after a long day's work. I come from an area where cooking has very strong traditions for cured meats, canned foods, root cellars, and group and harvest meals. Growing up in West Virginia, hunting, gardening and butchering were common and often communal activities. At the same time, healthy eating was not a common priority. West Virginia ranks second among adult obesity in the United States with 35.7% of adults counting as obese as of 2014.

The series advocates (without preaching) a simple, back-to-basics philosophy of food preparation and consumption and makes the viewer aware of the targeted propaganda telling all of us that cooking is hard and that we just don't have time for it. "The food industry really targeted housewives - building up this idea that life at home was a constant state of panic." - Laura Shapiro, Food Historian

In coming to the ideal of this new, old philosophy, Pollan refers to a statement by Harry Balzer, Chief Industry Analyst for the NPD (Marketing Research) Group: "Eat anything you want, enjoy all of your food, anything you want. You want an apple pie? Have a whole apple pie tonight. You want to have cookies with that apple pie and ice cream with that apple pie? I'll allow you to eat all the cookies and all the ice cream and all the apple pie you can have tonight. I'm just gonna ask you to do one thing - make all of them. Make the apple pie, make the ice cream and make the cookies. You know what I know is gonna happen? You're not having apple pie, ice cream or cookies tonight." - Harry Balzer

Further refining his point to be: "You're gonna do what most people do - buy the best quality raw ingredients you can afford and cook it as simply as possible." - Michael Pollan

Jaime and I have decided to adopt a version of this as a strategy for healthier living and have reinstated for the second time a rule we used to keep when we lived in Raleigh, NC. We only eat out with friends. For our own meals, we cook at home and try to eat a healthy, vegetable-tilted diet.

I am obese and have been for all of my adult life. It is this rule and a strict schedule of three two-hour workouts a week that aided me in losing the first 90lbs of my excess weight and losing this rule (moving cross-country, starting a new job and failing to find a new gym) that caused me to regain it. Subsequently, reinstating this rule the first time allowed me to lose that weight again. Now, I'm hoping that a final reinstatement (with gym routine) will help me to lose the remainder.

As part of this life change I wanted to try an idea that occurred to me when Pollan spoke of labour intensive foods. As I said, I love to cook, and I am no slouch when it comes to cooking. The fat kid in me learned to appreciate food a long time ago and the engineer in me learned to cook food that should be appreciated. So, I decided to experience making what I perceive as a low-labour comfort food from scratch. Now, as a goal we intend to eat much healthier foods than I'm about to describe, but this was an experiment to explore the point. I also have to break here and talk about what I mean by 'scratch'. There is really a gradient of 'from scratch'. It seems the predominant American idea of 'from scratch' is combining what I'll call mid-level ingredients into a cohesive meal. What I mean by this is to purchase the vegetables, starches, meats, wines, dairy and spices from the store; to do an assortment of things with utensils to those items (cutting, slicing, dicing, piercing, pitting, grinding, shredding or peeling); eventually to heat them (baking, frying, steaming, blanching, boiling, broiling, or grilling); and finally to plate and serve. In short, to follow a recipe. However, what if we raised the vegetables or milked the cow? What if we milled the grains and picked the spices?

Coming to the point (and title) of this entry, I decided to make Mac' n' Cheese from the lowest scratch I could. I live in an apartment in the middle of a major U.S. city and I wanted to accomplish this in a weekend. I couldn't raise and milk the cow, I couldn't raise the chickens and harvest the eggs, nor could I grow and mill the grains into flour. I could do the next best thing: I decided to make the cheese and make the pasta and finally to make baked Mac' n' Cheese from scratch or at least as close to true scratch as I could get in a weekend with little planning.

I'll be the first to say, this is not an awesome task but it is an interesting and out of the ordinary task. Growing up, Mac' n' Cheese was one of those foods my mom made in 20 minutes for an afternoon snack or to be paired with burgers for dinner. It was easy and kids liked it. However, she took a firm stance against easy-mac. I once made her buy a box of Kraft EasyMac™ and she refused to use anything from the blue box but the noodles.

So, starting out, I had to make cheese. The recipe for cheese isn't hard but finding the ingredients require planning that I hadn't done. So, I hadn't worked out how to get non-homogenized milk anymore than I had found a place that would sell me rennet (coagulating enzymes).

Homogenization is the process by which milk is made to not separate in the bottle. The process is actually quite simple, milk is sent through very fine nozzles at a high pressure and sprayed as a fine mist against a sheet of cooled metal. Passing through the nozzles causes the milk's fat solids to break into sufficiently fine pieces so as to not recombine under normal resting, refrigerated conditions. This is why people no longer commonly argue about someone stealing the cream off the top of the milk (a shenanigan my father is purported to have done commonly as a child). You can make cheese out of homogenized milk but it will produce smaller and fewer curds. You cannot easily make cheese out of ultra-homogenized milk which will not come together easily as cheese - I made this mistake.

Rennet is a collection of enzymes that occur naturally in the stomach's of young mammals that aid in milk digestion. These enzymes cause the milk to curdle so the whey can be absorbed as water while the curd is absorbed as food. Traditionally, rennet is produced by boiling or drying and crushing calves stomachs. However, modern rennet is produced from plant enzymes - this was of great relief to Jaime who prefers a healthy amount cognitive dissonance when it comes to being an omnivore.

After doing some internet research, I arrived at the following recipe for mozzarella cheese. I chose mozzarella because it is a young and uncultured cheese. It is pretty much the sleeveless hoody of cheese.

1. a large non-reactive pot 
2. a large mixing bowl
3. a small non-metallic mixing bowl
2. a slotted spoon
3. a large strainer
4. a small strainer
5. a slotted spoon
6. cheese cloth
7. two binder clips
8. a microwave oven
9. a digital cooking thermometer

1. a gallon of milk (as unhomogenized as you can get)
2. 1 rennet tablet dissolved into 1/2 cup water
3. 1/2 cup lemon juice
4. salt

1. Heat the milk slowly to 50°F and turn off heat
2. Add 1/4 cup of lemon juice and stir for one minute
3. Add remainder of lemon juice and stir for an additional minute - the milk will begin to curdle 
4. Heat milk slowly to 90°F stirring every five minutes and turn off heat
5. Add rennet while stirring for 30 seconds
6. Walk away for at least 30 minutes
7. Ensure the curd has come to the top as a solid layer. If the layer is not solid dissolve another 1/2 rennet tablet in water and add to milk (go to step 6)
8. Cut the curd using a sharp knife into 1" squares
9. Walk away for 10 minutes 
10. Slowly heat milk to 108°F the curds will continue to shrink and separate from the whey
11. With the heat off, stir gently every five minutes for 20 minutes
12. Fold the cheese cloth over itself until it is 2'x2', use the binder clips to affix it in the strainer, place the strainer over the mixing bowl.
13. Using the slotted spoon at first and then the small strainer, pour the curds into the filtering apparatus.
14. Move the cheese cloth and curds to the smaller non-metalic bowl
15. Microwave for 15-30 seconds, squeeze the whey away from the curds and pour they whey back into the pot, check temperature of the curds
16. When the curds reach 160°F - 170°F, begin pulling the cheese to cool it. It should feel like melted mozzarella.
17. When the cheese is cool enough pick it up and work it into a ball.
18. Eat.

So, at approximately 3pm on Saturday, Jaime and I set out in search of rennet and milk. We stopped at several specialty stores before calling our local Whole Foods who did carry it. At approximately 7:30pm I arrived home and was paged into a work event. Sometime around 9pm, I began making cheese.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must report that I did not know at the time to look for milk that is not ultra-homogenized. So, at step 17, my cheese took on a texture somewhere between ricotta and mozzarella but tasted like mozzarella. So, by 11pm I was not happy with my cheese. However, it tasted like cheese so I deemed it good enough to proceed and stuck it in the refrigerator to await use.

Using my pasta machine and inspiration from my copy of The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan, I embarked on the pasta dough. After forming the ball, I ran it through the pasta machine interspersed by curses as I made an even larger mess of the kitchen and finally cut it into strips, curled it into something resembling penné pasta and sliced it to 1" segments. The recipe follows but I must admit that as I've done this several to many times, so I rarely look at it anymore and this is from my memory:

1. 1 - 1 1/2 cups unbleached flour
2. 2 large eggs

Beginning with 1 cup of flour, create a well and crack two eggs into the center. Using your hand or a fork, mix the flour into and around the eggs until the dough begins to form. The additional 1/2 cup of flour is to add if the dough is still too sticky after the first cup is incorporated. The dough can vary based on the size and moisture content of the eggs as well as the humidity of your home, so this is an approximation. You want to achieve a dry but not crusty dough ball. The test for dough consistency is to wash and dry your hands and then press your thumb deep into the center of the ball. If it comes out clean you have good dough, if it's sticky you need more flower, if it's covered in flour you missed and are in the flour jar, wash, dry and retry.

Knead the dough against the counter or cutting board by pressing the palm of your hand into the mass and then folding it in half. Turn the dough between each knead. Knead for approximately 8-10 minutes until the dough is smooth. 

Leave the dough to rest for at least one hour and preferably overnight in plastic wrap. 

Cut the dough into six pieces and stretch or roll it into strip that will go through the pasta machine. Reduce the thickness of the machine until a desirable thickness is achieved. 

Slice as desired. 

At the resting phase, it was somewhere around 1AM, so I went to bed far too wired to sleep but far too tired to proceed. I fell asleep reading some portion of Sphere by Michael Crichton.

At 9:30am, I awoke and continued making pasta until the noodles were complete. Freshly made, undried pasta will cook much faster than dried store bought pasta as it doesn't need to reabsorb lost water.

After the noodles were cooked, I combined them with with the cheese. I then pan roasted sesame seeds and fried half a sweet onion (diced) until brown and crisp. I incorporated bread crumbs and the sesame seeds into the Mac' n' Cheese. Skipping the task of making my own bread for this task seemed reasonable at the time as I was hungry. However, in retrospect this was clearly cheating. I topped with additional bread crumbs and the onions before baking for some amount of minutes at somewhere between 400°F and 450°F until the dish appeared dry. Finally, I finished the dish off under the broiler to crisp the top.

This last bit of instruction is what Jaime calls a crappy recipe but it is honestly reflective of how I cook most things now.

Finally, at 11:30AM this morning, Jaime and I sat down for a breakfast of Mac' n' Cheese from "scratch" with black coffee.

So, what did I learn? During the 36 hour journey of this meal, I had time to consider humanity, cooking and cuisine. I've come to the belief that cuisine is a wonderful, cultural experience and we just cannot do alone. For a complicated meal produced in a reasonable amount of time, we require semi-processed ingredients, spices, utensils, hearth, fuel and instruction. Cuisine is as reflective of human culture as literature and as reflective of human intellect as mathematics. Imagine yourself alone on an island (and island with wheat), now, make bread. Can you? How long would it take? Will you starve before you finish? In thinking of what it meant to make a meal from scratch, I considered an individual's time and nutritional requirements. It is community cooperation that allows for the specialization of individuals and that in turn allows an individual to produce complex and tasteful food. It is more time and therefore calorie efficient to have individuals specialized in making large quantities of mid-level ingredients that others then combine into meals with a lower effort than that which would be necessary if they were made to do it all themselves.

This experience for me was about appreciating cooperation and also about rediscovering how easy it is for me to cook and how hard it is for us to cook. Also, I wanted to learn to make cheese.

It is necessary that we cooperate to be essentially human. However, corporations are not people, they do not believe as people and as Pollan points out they do not cook as people. We are robbing ourselves of the quintessentially human experience of cooking, the connectedness and mindfulness that has been with us for many thousands of years. We are also endangering our health with ultra-processed foods. Pollan's points are very important. These types of decisions define the future of humanity and the decision to maintain a healthy food culture is one of many similar decisions we are making now about the future experience of being human. We should make them intentionally and by way of least resistance.

- Eli