October 20, 2010

The Maine Ingredient: Hectic times call for quick meal options

By ANNE MAHLE

Even those of us who cook for a living have moments when the thought of pulling together dinner amidst the mire of life is more than we can manage.

click image to enlarge

Finishing touch: German chocolate cake gets a coating of toasted pecans.

Elizabeth Poisson

On these days, I'm so grateful for my freezer, and more importantly that there's something in the freezer, that I could almost hug it. I, frankly, hardly care WHAT is in there, but that it contains something that is dinner-worthy in less than 30 minutes.

It's my version of open a can or slap some meat between two slices of bread and bam, dinner's ready.

At the heart, I'm grateful to myself – for planning ahead, for labeling (although this is almost irrelevant on some days), for buying extra, making extra and then getting it into the freezer.

To build a small cache in your freezer is fairly easy. There are two ways that I've found are most effective. One is to plan one day a month to make a number of meals all at once.

Another is to make extra every time you cook and freeze half.

Either way, be sure to label and date everything. Even if you think you'll remember, know that things look different once they are frozen and you'll end up with mystery soup more often than not.

Both the Homemade Macaroni and Cheese and the cake for the German Chocolate Cake freeze well.

HOMEMADE MACARONI AND CHEESE

I'm not sure there is any meal that better embodies the title "comfort food" than a bubbly, creamy, crispy-topped bowl of macaroni and cheese. To liven things up you could always add mushrooms, lobster, broccoli, peas and/or bacon. To cook in individual ramekins, reduce cooking time to 30 minutes.

1 pound penne or other pasta, undercooked

1/2 stick unsalted butter, 1/4 cup, plus a little extra for the casserole dish

1 cup diced onion, about 1 medium onion

1/4 cup flour

7 cups milk

2 teaspoons salt

Several grinds of white pepper (or black if you don't mind seeing the black flecks)

4 ounces grated parmesan cheese, about 1 1/2 cups

4 ounces grated cheddar cheese, about 1 1/2 cups

CRUMB TOPPING:

1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick), melted

1 cup bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a medium stock pot (or the pot you used to cook the pasta), melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion and saute until translucent, about 7 minutes. Add the flour and salt, and stir until fully incorporated. Whisk the milk in briskly and bring to a simmer, whisking often.

Remove from heat and add the cheeses, stirring until melted. Add the pasta and stir with a wooden spoon until fully coated with the sauce. Transfer to a buttered 3 quart casserole. Bake for 1 hour or until the edges are bubbly and brown, and the center is fully hot.

Serves six to eight.

GERMAN CHOCOLATE CAKE

The box recipe that my mom and grandma always used to make was never attractive to me as a child. With the addition of a layer of ganache, however, the balance of bitter and sweet in the chocolate make this a dessert my daughters love. (Me too!)

I used the traditional recipe for the frosting, but instead of standing over the stove for 12 to 15 minutes stirring constantly, I put the frosting over a double boiler and only stir occasionally. It takes longer, closer to 30 minutes for the mixture to thicken.

The ganache is straight from Christopher Kimball's "The Dessert Bible." It's perfect just the way it is and needs not even a little tweaking.

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