November 13, 2007

Pates au Fromage Fort

Last night's dinner was inspired by the growing assortment of cheese scraps in my refrigerator… and also by a case of cheese abuse. The doggy bag from last week’s cheese and cider workshop experienced an overnight delay on its way to the fridge (did I mention it was hard cider?). The leftover cheeses, being the semi-firm variety, had leached their butterfat but were perfectly edible. I could forgive myself for such neglect only by devising a scrumptious use for the morsels. Having several other cheeses on hand, the idea of fromage fort entered my mind.

Fromage fort, like jambalaya or frittata, is an example of culinary alchemy: leftovers transformed into respectable fare. The traditional, French technique involves macerating cheese bits in milk for a few days before adding wine and seasoning to the mixture. The pungency of the fermented product earned its description as fort, or “strong.” The modern interpretation of this dish utilizes a food processor to combine cheese scraps (no rinds, please), a splash of white wine, a clove of garlic, and some fresh herbs into a savory spread. It’s delicious served cold or broiled on slices of crusty bread.

Lacking a loaf worthy of the spread, I decided to use the fromage fort concept to strengthen macaroni and cheese (trying desperately to ignore Emeril Lagasse's little voice in my head: "Kick it up a notch!"). As the water came to a boil, I collected all the cheese scraps available: aforementioned artisan goodies, extra-sharp cheddar, aged gouda, baby Swiss, a block of disappointing Comte with a spot of mold (oh, just trim it off), nubs of a couple more artisan cheeses, and the ever-present parmigiano.* I salvaged all I could, using a vegetable peeler on the harder rinds, and shredded the scraps together into a multi-tonal heap.
While the pasta was boiling (in this case, cellentani), I whisked together the base of a stovetop cheese sauce: evaporated milk and eggs, plus a dash of cayenne. I used Dijon mustard to supply a hint of white wine and to fill in for the dry mustard used in macaroni and cheese.

Stovetop macaroni comes together in a streamlined fashion: cooked pasta is drained while its pot is returned to low heat to melt unsalted butter. Drained pasta is returned to the pot, and the egg mixture is added amid constant stirring. Finally, the heat is turned off for the addition of the beautiful amalgamation of cheese. Sprinkle with black pepper and a seasonal herb (I chose thyme) for a finishing touch, but think twice before adding salt!

The result was the most luxurious version of mac’n’cheese I’ve ever had, and that includes the ones dressed up with truffle oil, smoked salmon, and the like. Unlike those flavors, the background components of fromage fort and homestyle macaroni enhance the intensity of the cheese without overwhelming it. This preparation is so rich that the recipe below will provide four main or six side servings.

8 oz elbow or other pasta
6 oz evaporated lowfat milk
1 egg plus
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic (roast it and you'll be well rewarded)
10 oz shredded cheese (at least three varieties, rinds removed)
cracked black pepper
minced fresh herb (e.g. parsley, thyme, tarragon)

*What's that, you don't always have ten distinct cheese specimens on hand? Neither do I, but after retesting the recipe with only four cheeses, I can report that cheese diversity is integral to this dish. So, the next time you serve multiple cheeses at a party (the topic of a future posting, I promise), buy a little extra for this application. Fresh, soft, and blue cheeses must be used before they go bad (even fromage fort can't work miracles), but harder cheese can be kept for a while, any spots of mold trimmed off before use. You could even store bits of hard cheese in the freezer for a couple of weeks... it'll still produce a sauce that shames anything from a box.

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