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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Recipe Makeover #1 - Svelte Macaroni & Cheese!

What?! Yes, you heard that correctly. Traditional, homemade baked macaroni and cheese. YUM!

I'm saying "yum!" now, but this week in The Svelte Gourmet test kitchen did NOT run as smoothly as usual. Last week, as you may remember, I blogged about eating at home and sending in your favorite "not-so-svelte" recipes for a makeover. Many of you jumped on the opportunity to send me scrambling! And I'll tell you, this one was certainly a challenge.

The suggestion for a lightened version of mac 'n cheese came from Amanda Cook, creator of one of my favorite blogs, Vintage Savoir Faire. Taking a cue from her tag line, I tried my best to make my great-grandmothers proud! But it wasn't easy...

So first, let's break it down. What is macaroni and cheese? Well, first there's macaroni. Pasta. Not svelte, especially when consumed in large quantities, since one ounce has 100 calories. And cheese. Oh, glorious cheese! Cheese is quite good for you if you exercise portion control -- but just one ounce (yes, ONE!) of most cheeses packs a whopping 100 calories. So what do we have? A dish based solely on pasta and cheese (each 100 calories per ounce). And I promised you I'd try to keep it under 200 calories per serving, so already you can see the challenge!

Since Amanda didn't have a specific recipe in mind and there are a million ways to make this traditional dish, I browsed some of my favorite cooking websites -- both gourmet and home style -- to figure out some common themes with mac 'n cheese. Here's what I found to be average for most of the recipes that serve 8 as a side dish (1/2 to 1 cup serving size):

1. 2-3 cups of cheese (one TV chef's recipe had 6 cups of cheese -- for 6 servings! Ahhh!)
2. At least 4 tablespoons of butter (at 100 calories per tablespoon!)
3. A cup of whole milk or sometimes heavy cream (gasp!)
4. 4 tablespoons of flour (often cooked with the butter to make a roux)
5. Varying amounts of breadcrumbs
6. Typically 8-12 ounces of pasta
7. About half the recipes included at least 2 eggs

So let's say that this is our recipe. Calculating this conservatively (with 2 1/2 cups of cheese, milk instead of cream, etc.), I get 433 calories and 20 grams of fat per serving! For a side dish! Does your recipe resemble this one? Yikes!

So how in the world am I supposed to make a dish that has virtually NOTHING healthy in it "svelte?" Let's just say I started on Sunday and we've had failed mac 'n cheese every night this week. But I never give up!

I started the week fully believing I could perform miracles. Let's just take all the bad stuff out, add some healthy (and sneaky!) substitutions, and OF COURSE it will taste authentic. Makes sense, right?! And of course I have to make it gourmet. That's what I was going for originally, so my first version starred Gruyere and white truffle oil. YUM! At least that's what I hoped. Trying to make a roux with whole wheat flour just wasn't a good idea. The Gruyere is usually a stand-out flavor, but it was overshadowed by the faulty roux. The truffle oil added a nice touch, but that was about the only redeeming quality. NEXT!

OK, so the next night, humbled, I went back to the old standbys. No more showboating. I have to get it right this time! So I went with cheddar, but instead of a lot of regular cheddar, I opted for considerably less "extra sharp" cheddar. I thought the best way to get it to coat the pasta, since I didn't have that much cheese to work with, was to make a cheese sauce. So off I went, heating the milk (I skipped the roux after the first incident!), and melting the cheese. I wanted to use whole grain pasta, since you know I prefer whole grains over those stripped of their fiber. Oh, and I thought a little crushed red pepper would give it a nice pop of flavor.

Well. What I had this time was what tasted like chili pepper and wheat, with maybe a hint of cheese somewhere in there. Dry as a bone, too. Where did all the cheese sauce go?!?! Foiled again!

One more shot...I figured if it didn't work this time, I would have to just tell you to eat less (or none!) of the real stuff. That would have gone over like a lead balloon, I'm sure! So I had to do a little compromising. After all, you're looking for comfort food, and I really wanted to deliver.

Tonight, my friends, I had success! I loved the end result and Keith said it tasted like real mac 'n cheese! It was the perfect texture, full of flavor, and not at all dry! And get ready for this -- it has less than half the calories and a quarter of the fat of our traditional recipe above! At only 195 calories and 5 grams of fat per 3/4 cup serving (that's big!), consider Macaroni & Cheese made over! Now promise me that you'll read the whole recipe and don't be alarmed by the secret ingredient! I'll explain at the end!

The Svelte Gourmet Macaroni & Cheese
Serves 8

7 oz elbow or shell pasta (NOT whole wheat)
4 cups cauliflower florets, roughly chopped
1 1/2 cups lowfat (2%) shredded cheddar or cheese blend (I used lowfat 4-cheese Mexican blend and it was fabulous!)
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan
2/3 cup 2% milk (skim would make the fat and calories even lower!)
1 egg
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp butter, melted
2 tbsp panko bread crumbs
butter spray

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Boil pasta in salted water until al dente. Drain well. Steam cauliflower florets until very soft, drain. Let pasta and cauliflower cool a bit while you prepare the other ingredients. Shred the cheese if it's not pre-shredded. Beat the milk, egg and salt together in a small bowl. Mix the melted butter with the panko in another bowl.

Mash the cauliflower with a potato masher, a whisk, or whatever you have handy. Mix it with the pasta until well combined, being careful not to break up the noodles. Take a pinch of each of the cheeses and toss them with the panko/butter. Set aside. Combine the rest of the cheese with the pasta and cauliflower. Spray the bottom and sides of your casserole dish lightly with spray butter, then spread the mixture evenly in your casserole dish. Pour the milk/egg/salt mixture over the top. With your mixing spoon, carefully stir and fold until the milk mixture is combined with the pasta/cauliflower. Sprinkle with the panko/butter/cheese mixture and bake, uncovered, for 30-40 minutes or until the top just starts to brown. Voila!

OK, hold on. Who said anything about Macaroni-Cauliflower & Cheese? That's cheating! But trust me on this, you will not be able to taste the cauliflower at all. I had it in all three versions, and despite how terrible the first two were, Keith had no idea there were veggies in any of it. The bite of the cauliflower disappears and it melts into that lovely, cheesy, custardy texture that you're looking for. Try it! I think you'll be surprised. It adds volume to the dish with negligible calories, and you won't even know it's there! Magic!

Is this version as good as the "real thing?" Some may think so, some may not. But try it and then ask yourself this -- is the fattening one really worth it? 433 calories and 20 grams of fat? Maybe for a special dinner, but at least with this new one, you can enjoy it more than once a year without the guilt!

I truly hope you enjoy this recipe -- I wouldn't have dared attempt mac 'n cheese if it weren't for Amanda's suggestion, and I hope you all continue to share your suggestions and ideas with us! Thank you, Amanda!

For more "magic" recipes, try The Svelte Gourmet: A Month of Main Courses cookbook, available at www.thesveltegourmet.com/products.html.

Enjoy!

27 comments:

Amanda said...

I thought I'd thrown down quite the challenge with Mac & Cheese - but I'm impressed!! Will definitely give this revamped recipe a try this weekend. Cauliflower is a great idea. Here in the UK, "Cauliflower Cheese" is a really popular side dish (just cauliflower drowned in cheese sauce) and quite tasty, so it's a combo that works. Thanks for the recipe revamp, Jen!!!

Donald said...

I have been making a mac n cheese and cauliflower dish for a while now, but always left the cauliflower florets whole. I love the idea of mashing them and having them blend into the sauce for those who wouldn't eat them otherwise. Nice solution ... I'll have to give it a try soon.

Frau Nelson said...

I love the cauliflower idea! I always put peas in my mac-n-cheese...not just for the sake of adding a veg, but because I really like it that way. Perhaps it goes back to when my mom used to make "cheese peas" for me as a kid, and yes, she also made cheesy cauliflower, just like Amanda mentioned. Too funny! Anyhow, thanks for the idea, I will definitely put some in my next batch...YUM!

Anonymous said...

Could it be that I can actually have Mac & Cheese more than once a year? I never thought that possible ever. I felt that if I didn't want to blow up that I would have to avoid Mac & Cheese altogether. I'll definitely give this a try especially since I know what you know, that whole grain pasta zaps the taste out of pasta dishes for some reason and makes it like you're chewing cardboard. But since you said there was no need for whole grain pasta in this low cal dish, I'll cook it. :D

The Svelte Gourmet said...

Yes, you can! =) And I really do like whole grain pasta with a hearty tomato sauce or something like that, but in this recipe, it was adding a flavor that didn't belong. I was trying to stay true to taste, after all! I hope you enjoy it!

Angie Moita said...

Jenny, I just tried this recipe last night. It was amazingly good. My 13-month old couldn't get enough, and my husband had 2 helpings! I love that it has cauliflower in it, too. I don't like veggies, so anywhere I can "hide" them in my food is great! Keep the recipe makeovers coming!

The Svelte Gourmet said...

I'm so happy to hear that! This one seems to be really popular with kids and grown-ups, alike. See, eating healthfully doesn't have to be boring or bland! =) So glad you enjoyed it!

Anonymous said...

I am going to try this tonight. The big test will be if my husband likes it or not.

The Svelte Gourmet said...

How was it? I hope you liked it! I had some in the fridge and my daughter ate it for breakfast...so I guess that's a good sign! =)

zoom yummy said...

Yum. That looks really wonderful!

Talita said...

I'll try it soon. Love mac and cheese. One recipe I never get tired of is Ellie Krieger's. It's with puree squash and very healthy.

Katy said...

oh i knew it was going to be cauliflower! no idea how i guessed that -- maybe i've just eaten cauliflower "faux" mashed potatoes too many times. this looks great and healthy -- very impressive!!!

Valen said...

Whole grain pasta has certainly changed over the years in color, texture and taste. It tastes, looks and feels just like white pasta nowadays, but I remember 10 years ago it was like eating dirt. This recipe looks very good! How dare that TV chef share a recipe with 6 cups of cheese!?

Mark @ Cafe Campana said...

Mmmm this mac and cheese looks great. I love adding a mixture of different cheeses like blue vain and mozzarella

The Svelte Gourmet said...

Mark, mixing up the cheeses would be great! I was trying to keep this authentic for the challenge, but next time, blue cheese will find its way in there!

Valen, I know -- how dare they! I was even more inspired to get this right when I watched the mac & cheese episode of Bobby Flay's Throwdown. The challenger's mac & cheese boasted over 2000 calories PER SERVING. I'm sure it was awesome, but that is NUTS. No wonder there's an obesity problem in this country!

Thanks for sharing, everyone! It's so nice to meet you all!

Paula said...

two of my fave dishes are mac n cheese and cauliflower cheese, this recipe is now on my food plan for tomorrow!
Paula (UK)

Anonymous said...

can i use broccolli instead?

The Svelte Gourmet said...

You can certainly try it! I love broccoli and I think that would taste great! However, if you simply don't like cauliflower but you're trying to stay true to the flavor of traditional mac & cheese, you might want to try another vegetable like yellow squash, a peeled zucchini, or another vegetable where the flavor and color fade to the background. With broccoli, you might end up with a green -- but tasty! -- version.

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t.oxen said...

I tried this tonight and it was wonderfully delish!! I also added greek yogurt in the place of the milk, and used sharp chedder cheese with the shredded parmesan. Hubby could not even tell it had cauliflower in it. This will deinately be used again. Thanks so much for sharing.

Anonymous said...

My kids LOVE macaroni cheese, and I have been trying to make it healthier too. I substitute some of the milk/butter/flour with puréed cauliflower, silken tofu or liquid stock. I don't usually use cheese in the sauce just for the top with breadcrumbs. I find it is thick and tasty. The kids love it and I am satisfied they are getting a healthy serve of veggies and protien. My veggie hating kids are vegetarian so this is very important to me!

Anonymous said...

what size is the baking dish used? 9 x 13?

The Svelte Gourmet said...

Yes, that's traditionally what I would use, but I also make it in the individual serving bowls pictured with great results! The cauliflower keeps it from drying out -- just keep an eye on it and when it starts to brown/bubble on top, it's done!

Anonymous said...

I tried this recipe today and it tastes great - the problem is it came out really dry. Any ideas of where I may have gone wrong? Could I add more milk next time? I found the recipe on a link at CNN by the way...

The Svelte Gourmet said...

Hmmm....you could try more milk, but I would try more cauliflower instead. Also, make sure the pasta is fully cooked so it doesn't absorb all the liquid. Let me know how it turns out if you try it again! Thanks for reading!

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