So it’s over. I finished my dissertation and handed it in last week. I thought I would be elated, and want to party all month, but in the end all I really wanted to do was crawl under the duvet and hibernate. And eat comfort food. It’s a bit like a bad breakup really; my two-year intense relationship with my MSc is over.
From my position under the duvet I started reading blogs again. The Spoon PR blog described Sarah’s obsession with macaroni cheese a la Modernist Cuisine. Modernist Cuisine is the multi-volume molecular gastronomy tome produced by Nathan Myhrvold and his team; retailing at several hundred pounds it is a book for professionals. However, for the home cook/obsessive, he has recently released Modernist Cuisine at Home.
Of course, the merest mention of macaroni cheese is enough to make me long for it and stop at nothing to get it. Mac and cheese may be one of the most distracting substances known to man. The Mishkins version is a thing of such joy it nearly caused me to miss the start of a show once; a crisis only averted by turning up at the theatre five minutes late to discover the performance had been cancelled. So the day after hand in day, feeling particularly susceptible to the seductive combination of carbohydrate and dairy, I got through my half day at work with Sarah’s macaroni cheese still on my mind. I had to have it.
I do not own the book, but luckily the recipe is available on the Modernist Cuisine website. It’s not your average macaroni cheese. There is no flour in the recipe; instead, the cheese and liquid are emulsified using something called sodium citrate. There was a lot of discussion on Twitter about where this could be found, with several suggesting it could be procured from a pharmacy. Down to my local independent pharmacy I went to ask. It turns out sodium citrate is used as a treatment for cystitis. Awkward. The pharmacy had it, but only in cranberry flavour (by the way, if cranberry juice has been debunked as a treatment for UTIs, I suspect cranberry flavouring isn’t going to work either). Explaining that I needed it for culinary purposes and that cranberry flavour simply wouldn’t do, I continued my quest. Boots didn’t have anything matching that description, so it was on to the independent pharmacy in Camden Town where I also buy my citric acid (I have no idea what the medical use for citric acid is, but I use it for making elderflower cordial). This time I was prepared with my “I am making a recipe that asks for sodium citrate. Do you have any?”. The pharmacist foraged behind the counter before producing another packet of cranberry flavour. Nope. Then we realised that not all of the packets looked the same, and there was one packet not labelled with a flavour. Bingo!
A quick stop in M&S produced the other necessary ingredients and me and my now gnawing hunger headed home. My only goal now was to get this mac & cheese into my stomach as quickly as possible. I heated some milk, grated some cheese, put some pasta on to cook and opened the packed of sodium citrate. Inside there were several small sachets. Oh.
See that? Yeah. But did I mention how hungry (and by this stage, slightly delirious) I was? It gets worse – a quick scan of the ingredients revealed it didn’t just include sodium citrate but also citric acid and sodium bicarbonate. Remember making “volcanoes” with bicarb and vinegar as a kid? However, a quick internet search revealed that bicarb + citric acid = sodium citrate. So, what harm could it cause, really? (I should mention that the recipe warns against substituting citric acid for sodium citrate…. this is cooking on the edge, people!)
Hmm. Not looking very appetising at this stage. I sniffed, but couldn’t detect any discernible lemon scent. I didn’t want my mac & cheese to taste like Fairy liquid. Perhaps cheese would help. Cheese makes everything better.
The recipe instructs you to add the cheese a handful at a time, blending each addition with a stick blender. It did indeed blend down into a silky smooth sauce. Sarah warned that when she made it the sauce was slightly too thin for her taste, but maybe the sparkling lemon added a little je ne sais quoi to my creation, because it came out quite thick and showed a tendency to stick to the pan, the stick blender, and anything else it came into contact with. Including, finally, the pasta:
It wasn’t half bad, although on balance I don’t mind a cheese sauce with a bit more texture, and possibly a crust on the top. I ate a few mouthfuls to satisfy myself it wasn’t poisonous before taking a plateful to my flatmate, who was home sick from work. I’m sure if she’d had cystitis she would have been up and out of bed straight away.
Variation: try using cranberry-flavoured Cymalon and cranberry-studded Wensleydale.*
* the book promises several variations, “including stove-top, baked, and fat-free versions, that can be made with any cheese blend you like, from gouda and cheddar to jack and Stilton” – all of which I’m sure are delicious. The book possibly also vindicates my mother’s favourite cooking technique by suggesting that you can in fact steam perfect fish and vegetables in the microwave.