My family is often subjected to my recipe and food science kitchen experiments, and they are usually happy to serve as guinea pigs. However, my hubby and stepdaughter recently experienced an epic fail, compliments of me. While working on a client recipe development project, I was inspired by a recipe in First Lady Michelle Obama's book, American Grown, The Story of The White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, published Spring 2012. And this epic fail has nothing to do with Mrs. Obama, read on....
I first learned of her recipe, cauliflower mac and cheese, on National Public Radio. Pureed cooked cauliflower is added to the pasta, along with milk and cheese, to give a "deliciously creamy texture without the extra fat and calories." I should have left well enough alone with Mrs. Obama's recipe, but I decided I'd try to make the recipe über healthy by using lowfat cheddar instead of the cheddar cheese in the original recipe. I also departed on the directions, by adding the pureed cauilflower directing to the melted cheese and milk, thinking I would heat and stir it into smooth submission. Bad, bad, bad, ideas.
The protein in the lowfat cheese very quickly coagulated into granular clumps, which no amount of stirring would resolve. The final presentation on the plate looked like what a mama bird regurgitates for her youngsters. I powered my way through the dish while hubby and stepdaughter scrounged for other dinner options. Flavor = awesome. Texture and visual appeal = epic fail! Not eaten = not healthy and a waste of food and resources. My sincere apologies, Mrs Obama! I think the book is lovely and the original recipe is a winner. And I'm not just saying that because it's election season! Numerous recipes exist for macaroni and cheese, and I find this version appealing with the addition of tangy pureed cauliflower and nutty whole-grain macaroni.
In my macaroni and cheese recipe, I make a cheese sauce first before adding it to the pasta. I also use a specific cheese (to be revealed later), to the consternation of my stepchildren but to the delight of my son. Producing a cheese sauce that is creamy have a lot to do with choice of cheese or cheeses. Let's deconstruct the science of a creamy cheese sauce. My husband recently gave me another 2012 book, The Kitchen As Laboratory, Reflections on the Science of Food and Cooking.
The book is a collection of essays by chefs and scientists who "advance culinary knowledge by testing hypotheses rooted in the physical and chemical properties of food." How timely that I had just mangled Mrs. Obama's recipe when I read the first essay, "The Science of a Grilled Cheese Sandwich," written by Jennifer Kimmel, a protein chemist at Kraft Foods. While the essay focuses the grilled cheese sandwich, what also applies to cheese sauce is Kimmel's explanation of the properties of various cheeses: Casein (primary protein in milk and cheese) is held together in little aggregates called micelles. The micelles are held intact by calcium bridges. So far, so good. As cheese ages, lactose is converted to lactic acid (which is why individuals with lactose intolerance may tolerate aged cheeses better than fresher cheeses). When more lactose converts to lactic acid, the pH of the cheese becomes more acidic. The tends to break down the calcium bridges and increases the mobility of protein. A certain pH level allows the protein molecules to flow and interact with oil droplets, which prevents the oil from leaking out of the cheese. But if the pH is too low, too many calcium bridges and mycelles collapse, resulting in a curdy melt with oil leakage. Here, I had an a ha moment - the reason why sharp cheddar does not melt well and gets oilier than its less aged counterparts. Kimmel advises the appropriate pH range for a good melting cheese is 5.3-5.5, and suggests Gruyere, Manchego and Gouda. A Kraft protein scientist would be remiss if she didn't address why processed cheese gives such a good melt. She states, "Manufacturers of processed cheese have devleoped a method to decrease calcium bridging. They use salts (specifically, citrate and phosphate salts) to bind the calcium from within the casein mycelles."
And, true confession, that good melt is why I often use Velveeta to create a creamy cheese sauce and my sister swears by it, too. Foodie opinions be damned. Back in the hey day of Velveeta, I learned to make white sauce from my mom; the cheese is added as the last step, before smothering pasta. As a saving grace, Velveeta is lower in fat than many natural cheeses. I add either baby spinach or chopped broccoli and use whole grain pasta. But I'm thinking I'll check out Mrs. Obama's pureed cauliflower with my Velveeta mac and cheese some time soon. I absolutely love the combination of vegetables and cheese, natural, processed or otherwise.
That brings me to another publication, this time a peer-reviewed journal article: Is "Processed" a Four-Letter Word? The Role of Processed Foods in Achieving Dietary Guidelines and Nutrient Recommendations, a good read in the July 2012 issue of Advances in Nutrition.