It’s Friday afternoon, on the eve of Christmas Eve, and I’m beginning to write this blog with an extremely full tummy. I’m moving a bit slower than normal, but want to share my latest wood fired baking experience with you before the weekend.
To celebrate the holiday, I was given free reign to try something different in our wood fired oven. I chose a new twist on an old favorite, Macaroni & Cheese – wood-fired style. First, I have to give you a little history, because mac & cheese and I go way back.
I grew up eating the “stuff.” It was the macaroni in a box, with powdered cheese. I’m not sure if it even was cheese but it was orange and that was convincing enough for me at 8 years old. I didn’t eat macaroni and cheese just at lunchtime or dinner, but often at breakfast, and as a snack in the middle of the day. I was addicted. As you can probably imagine, I did not have a very sensitive palate as a kid. If I was good, or was extra helpful taking care of the animals on my parent’s farm, I got Velveeta Shells, the extra creamy kind with the “real” cheese. Had I known I would later work on my parents farm and start making farmstead cheese professionally in my late 20’s, and that I would have the fortune of working for Maine Wood Heat Co. the elite builders and designers of wood fired ovens, I would have held out for the real thing. But that’s all in the past.
When I expressed an interest and passion for the food, Scott forwarded me along a link to a Baked Mac & Cheese recipe in the Joy of Cooking. I brought in the ingredients, fresh Jersey milk from our farm, a wheel of my 6 month old Gouda-style cheese, local butter, onions, macaroni, paprika, breadcrumbs & flour. This may sound trite, but I followed the recipe (my rendition is below), and two hours later pulled the very best macaroni and cheese I have ever had, and am certain, will ever have the pleasure of tasting in all my life. I strongly encourage you to add this recipe to your holiday menu.
Please note that I was cooking for our whole crew here, so I tripled all of the ingredients. Refer to the original recipe when you begin (for recipe, click here), and just use my account below as a guide if you’re using a wood fired oven.
2. Fill a cast iron pot with a few cups of water and bring to a boil.
3. Add pasta and place cast iron pot in the middle of the hearth. Check it every few minutes, stirring often. After 15 minutes, the pasta was fully cooked. The temp had increased to 750 degrees.
5. Head back to the oven, rake the coals over the hearth and let them sit for 20 minutes, then rake them out of the oven and close the door. This will equalize the temperature. It had dropped down to 700 degrees for me.
6. Next, melt the following in your cast iron pot (see recipe for exact measures) – butter, flour, milk, minced onion, 1 bay leaf, and paprika. Let these simmer for 15 minutes before adding your cheese.
7. I brought in a wheel of my Gouda-style cheese, so I cut the wheel into wedges and grated it. I decided I couldn’t risk not having enough, so I used the entire wheel.
8. After grinding a little salt and pepper to taste, I added two-thirds of my grated cheese and decided to melt it all down a bit more so I put the cast iron pot back in the oven for 10 minutes before adding in the macaroni.
When the cheese melted, stir in the macaroni, and pour half of it into the baking dish. Then sprinkle half of the remaining cheese over the layer of macaroni. Add the rest of the macaroni on top.
Before putting the macaroni and cheese back in the oven to finish baking, I combined a half of stick of butter with a cup and a half of breadcrumbs to make the top layer along with all the cheese I had leftover. I only had to leave the butter and breadcrumbs in the oven a few minutes before it was ready to be spooned on top of the final layer of cheese covering the macaroni.
The last step – putting the dish back in the oven to bake. It took 18 minutes at 350 degrees. When I took it out, the breadcrumbs were lightly browned and the cheese was sizzling. We let it rest for a few minutes before diving in.
I am, by no means, an expert in the art of wood fired baking, and I’m lucky to have some pro’s here at the office to guide me, but I continue to be amazed at what I’m able to pull out of the oven. I’m convinced our Le Panyol has my back. It roots for me and makes up for my inexperience and miscalculations.
I watched with complete joy and satisfaction as my colleagues ate their helpings, and happily jumped at the opportunity to serve them seconds. I’m finally feeling in the Christmas spirit.