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Marvelous Mac ‘n’ Cheese


In the parlance of journalism, Clark Wolf is what we reporters gleefully call a “quote machine.” 

If we need a pithy, memorable quote about food, chefs, restaurants, or eating trends, who we gonna call? 

Invariably, Clark Wolf. 

The restaurant consultant, who lives in Sonoma County, has a gift for gab, a way with words, a wondrous wit, and is not shy in the least about giving voice to the downright outrageous. Plus, as a former manager for the San Francisco Oakville Grocery and a foodie who’s rubbed shoulders with everyone who’s anyone in the culinary world, he definitely knows his stuff. 

Former New York Times food writer Marian Burros and I once joked to each other that the day was coming when our respective publications would issue a moratorium on Clark Wolf quotes because they were just so prevalent. 

Fortunately, that day never came. 

You’ll still find him being quoted in many a food story. And now, you’ll also find him on the book shelves with his new “American Cheeses” (Simon  & Schuster) tome. 

Wolf, who ran a cheese shop in San Francisco in 1976, profiles the men and women whose work created the incredible artisan cheese industry in this country. He also includes recipes for everything from A Perfect Pimento Cheese to Escargots with Roasted Garlic and Gorgonzola. And it’s all told in a way only he can tell it. 

“The way a cheese, or any food, looks has a lot to do with my decision about whether or not to toss it into the shopping basket,” he writes in the book. “Some of it is learned. A lot of us have gotten over the need to pick what looks like picture-perfect fruits and vegetables, realizing that sometimes, say, an apple bred for visual perfection can taste a lot like packing material. We’ve come to know that a bruise here, a funny stripe there, an odd shape, or a varied coloration, can, for the right variety, mean peak seasonal bliss. 

“So, too, with cheese. Sometimes the moldy, aged, smelly slime on the outside suggests creamy within. 

“But mostly, it is good if it looks good. And if it looks like fermented roadkill, it might be best to ask a few questions and inquire about trying a little taste.” 

You have to smile at that. And at this sublime macaroni and cheese recipe from the book. This one was created for a restaurant Wolf was a partner of in 1990s. The dish was then redeveloped for the SoHo Grand Hotel in Manhattan. Finally, Burros adapted it into a more home-kichen-friendly version in her book, “Cooking for Comfort” (Simon & Schuster). 

What I love about this rendition is that it’s not a mac ‘n’ cheese that’s over-the-top, artery-clogging, can’t-eat-more-than-two-bites fare. 

Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s plenty rich from extra sharp aged white cheddar. But the binder is low-fat milk. A spoonful of Dijon mustard gives it that little something-something. A few drops of hot pepper sauce lend just the lightest of kicks. And a topping of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano gives it an extra cheesy boost. 

It’s a mac ‘n’ cheese to enjoy without having to don elastic-waist pants for the occasion. 

It’s a classic version you’ll probably end up making more often than any overloaded one. 

So, who am I gonna turn to when jonesing for mac ‘n’ cheese? 

You know it — Clark Wolf. 

Macaroni and Cheese

(serves 3 or 4 as a main dish or 6 as a side dish) 

1 cup diced onion

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

2 cups low-fat milk

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

12 ounces grated extra sharp aged white cheddar

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon hot pepper sauce (or to taste)

8 ounces cavatappi or other corkscrew pasta

2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano 

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place a rack in the bottom third of the oven.

In a large saucepan, cook onion in butter over low heat for 5 to 7 minutes, until onion is soft but not browned. Stir in the flour. Remove from heat and whisk in milk until thoroughly blended. Return to medium heat and cook, stirring, until mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat and stir in mustard and 10 ounces (2 ½ cups) of cheddar, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and hot pepper sauce.

Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions until just al dente. Drain but do not rinse. Stir immediately into the cheese sauce until well blended. Adjust seasoning.

Spoon mixture into a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Top with remaining 2 ounces cheddar and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bake for about 30 minutes, until mixture is hot, bubbling throughout, and golden.

Notes: The casserole can be refrigerated before baking. Let the dish return to room temperature and follow baking directions.

The quality and sharpness of the cheese are all-important to the success of this dish. Use a white cheddar that has been aged at least two years. Grafton Village cheese is always Wolf’s choice. 

From “American Cheeses”