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CHILDHOOD FAVORITE HAS GROWN UP RESTAURANTS GIVE MAC & CHEESE A MAKEOVER.

Byline: NATALIE HAUGHTON

>FOOD EDITOR

If you grew up on the orange Kraft macaroni and cheese dinner, first introduced in 1936, as many kids did, you may still crave the comfort of that homey dish.

Take a look at many restaurant menus -- and you'll find chefs adding their own touches to the American culinary icon. The upscale makeover may be made with crab, lobster, black or white truffles, broccoli, brie, mascarpone, Gorgonzola, white cheddar, a variety of pastas beyond elbow macaroni and much more.

"Mac and cheese is popular today because it is so comforting, and so universally endearing," says Marlena Spieler, author of "Macaroni & Cheese." "Its soothing texture and unchallenging flavors take us back to a less stressful time.

"I think that the simple truth, outside of the fact that customers love eating it, is that it is as soothing to make as it is to eat."

Cezanne restaurant in Le Merigot hotel in Santa Monica recently started mac and cheese nights every Thursday featuring a trio of different varieties, notes Desi Szonntagh, the hotel and restaurant's executive chef.

"Everyone likes mac and cheese, and it has so many possibilities." Cezanne's Black Truffle Mac & Cheese With Lobster and a crispy crust is a signature dish and has been a popular menu mainstay for the last year and a half.

It's made with pre-steamed chopped Maine lobster sauteed in butter with shallots, garlic, black truffle oil, canned truffle juice and shaved black truffles, a cheese sauce (similar to a fondue) with heavy cream and five kinds of cheese -- Parmesan, domestic goat cheese, raw-milk Manchego, gouda and brie -- and cooked al dente macaroni.

"I try to combine kinds of cheeses that all have different textures," he says adding he uses flash-frozen Chinese truffles. It's served in individual-serving-size dishes covered with fresh panko (bread crumbs) with a tiny bit of browned butter on top.

"This is a mac and cheese for grown-ups," says Szonntagh. "We sell about 40 orders a week."

On mac and cheese nights, indulge in small plates of the three offered as an appetizer or order a larger portion of the most appealing one. Changing weekly, the creations include combos like lump crab, garganelli pasta and blue cheese; truffle tortellini with smoky blue cheese; wild seasonal mushrooms with Maytag blue and so on.

At the Peninsula Beverly Hills Hotel, the Truffle Macaroni and Cheese has been a lunch and dinner menu fixture at the Belvedere restaurant for the last six years, notes Sean Hardy, the hotel's executive chef, adding that you can order it as a small bite, appetizer or main dish. This upscale version features elbow pasta with creamy Taleggio cheese, crushed truffles (black winter) and a Parmesan tuile.

"It's something you can't take off the menu because the regulars would be quite upset -- and it's one of the food items we are known for. Mac and cheese has become a craze the last two or three years," he adds.

"A lot of people are going back to American comfort food in a lot of ways, whether mini sliders, meatball sliders or chefs reinventing classics into modernistic versions such as mac and cheese with truffles and a creamy Taleggio cheese."

To make his rendition, a traditional vin blanc sauce made with onions, leeks, shallots, celery, white wine, cream and herbs is finished with chunks of Taleggio and grated Parmesan, then lightly pureed and strained. A small amount of white truffle oil is added. The sauce is then heated with cooked al dente pasta to order; shaved truffles (from Italy or France) garnish the top.

When you're in the mood to splurge, head to Melisse Restaurant in Santa Monica for Fresh Tagliatelli, Parmesan Cheese, Shaved White Truffles (black when white are out of season) and Brown Butter Truffle Froth. An appetizer serving on the regular menu will set you back $95. Although this has been referred to by some as the most expensive mac and cheese in L.A., "the idea had nothing to do with mac and cheese," says Josiah Citrin, the restaurant's chef/owner. "It had to do with what goes well with the truffles -- pasta (not elbow macaroni) and cheese. This is my truffle pasta or linguine."

At Fred 62 in Los Angeles, the macaroni and cheese is a creamy version with pasilla chiles, shredded cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses, and bread crumbs sprinkled on top. Cooked elbow macaroni is layered in an individual serving dish with layers of cream sauce and the cheeses, then topped with bread crumbs mixed with paprika and butter. It's cooked in the microwave for three minutes.

For something a bit different, try the fried macaroni and cheese balls among the appetizer selections at The Cheesecake Factory.

"We roll the mac and cheese into balls, bread and fry them," says Howard Gordon, senior vice president. "They are served four to a plate with a creamy tomato sauce." In addition, a creamy macaroni and cheese side accompanies crispy pork tenderloin milanese.

At Mastro's Steakhouse in Beverly Hills and Thousand Oaks, the thick mac and cheese features five different cheeses, while at Mimosa in Los Angeles, the menu offers a French- style version, creamy inside and crispy outside with Swiss cheese and prosciutto. Another version is found at the just-opened French brasserie Comme Ca in West Hollywood. A smoky-flavored Chipotle Mac and Cheese With Cheddar is offered at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Woodland Hills and El Segundo.

The retro dish is back and dressed up fashionably for adults.

Natalie Haughton, (818) 713-3692;

natalie.haughton@dailynews.com

YANKEE DOODLE DANDY BAKED MACARONI AND CHEESE

This is quintessential American macaroni and cheese, made with bechamel sauce and Cheddar. This can be made on the stove top instead of baked if you're in a hurry. To make on the stove top, simply cook the pasta for a slightly longer time, until al dente, toss with the sauce and cheese, and serve it directly from the pot.

12 ounces large elbow macaroni, farfalle (butterfly- OR bowtie-shaped pasta) OR conchiglie (shells)

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons flour

3 cups hot, but not boiling, milk (low-fat is fine)

1 bay leaf

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1 tablespoon dry mustard

12 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded (about 3 cups)

5 or 6 ounces mild white meltable cheese, such as Jack, Gouda OR kasseri, shredded

4 to 5 ounces sharp blue cheese, crumbled

1/2 onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped (optional)

1/2 to 2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan OR pecorino cheese

Cook pasta in a large pot of rapidly boiling salted water until not quite tender -- just shy of al dente. Drain and set aside.

Make the bechamel: Melt butter in a heavy nonstick saucepan and sprinkle with flour. Cook for a minute or two, then stir with a wooden spoon. Remove from heat and add milk all at once, along with bay leaf. Cook, stirring, over medium-high heat until sauce thickens, about 5 to 7 minutes. If there are any lumps, remove bay leaf and whisk with a wire whisk or whirl in the food processor. Remove from heat and season with salt, pepper, paprika and dry mustard.

Reserve 5 to 6 tablespoons of the sharp Cheddar and mild white cheeses. Remove bay leaf from the bechamel if you haven't already, then stir in remaining Cheddar, mild white cheese and blue cheese.

In the bottom of a 1 1/2-quart baking dish with 4-inch sides, sprinkle 1 or 2 tablespoons of the reserved cheeses. Add onion and garlic to cheese sauce.

Layer 1/3 of macaroni in bottom of the dish, top with a third of the cheese sauce, and repeat the layers two more times, ending with the cheese sauce. Sprinkle with remaining shredded cheeses, then with the Parmesan cheese. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven 20 to 25 minutes, or until cheese is melty and slightly browned in spots. Makes 5 to 6 servings.

MACARONI AND BROCCOLI AND CHEESE: Add a layer or two of blanched broccoli florets as you assemble the casserole. End with a layer of broccoli before you top with the remaining cheeses.

From "Macaroni & Cheese," by Marlena Spieler.

>tips & tricks

Marlena Spieler's guidelines for making good

mac and cheese.

>Use good-quality dried pasta (from Italy preferred) and don't overcook it. Use 1 1/2 quarts rapidly boiling water (be sure it's boiling before adding the pasta to avoid mushy results) and 1 1/2 tablespoons salt to cook a pound of dried pasta (don't add olive oil). To avoid sticking, stir the pasta after adding it to the boiling water. Cook only until al dente. Slightly undercook it, if you plan to bake the mac and cheese.

>Although there are lots of pasta shapes, choose a chunky macaroni type, not a long length of pasta like spaghetti, which can get weighted down and end up with clumped cheese.

>Use what you think is enough cheese, then add more.

>For best results, taste and adjust seasonings and ingredients as you go along.

>Even though processed cheese melts easily into a gooey sauce, avoid using it because it lacks real cheese flavor and character. They are so many wonderful cheeses available that taste great, it would be a shame not to use them.

>Avoid using evaporated milk. "I find it has a strange sweetness." Instead, Spieler opts for creme fraiche, whipping or heavy cream, or bechamel sauce.

>While some recipes call for the cheese to be stirred into the sauce then mixed with the pasta, Spieler says the cheese gets lost. Mix only half of the shredded cheese into the sauce, she suggests, so you end up with some pure cheese flavor in the finished dish.

>"Macaroni and cheese is my default dish. I know that I can have a delicious dish on the table within about 10 minutes after walking through the door at the end of a long day, as I almost always have an assortment of cheeses that are kind of languishing and just right for shredding up and tossing with the hot macaroni."

>For a fast mac and cheese, toss (don't stir or you'll end up with pasta shreds) cooked macaroni with a little creme fraiche, chopped onions (shallots or green onions, maybe a little garlic, too) and shredded cheese over low heat. If Spieler has a little more time, she'll whip up a white bechamel sauce.

>N.H.

>cheeses galore

>Cheeses lend their own unique flavors and melting qualities. Often a combination of them makes the best mac and cheese. Combine mild and sharp flavored cheeses -- and some creamy or firm-textured. If you're feeling adventuresome, experiment with the loads of options available.

>Some good combos include mostly cheddar with a hint of blue and Parmesan. Or try mozzarella, ricotta and Parmesan or Appenzeller and creme fraiche.

>Swiss, jack, gouda, Dutch Edam, provolone and fontina are other possibilities and all melt well. Also try gruyere and Jarlsberg or Emmenthal or Stilton. Goat cheese, mascarpone and brie are creamy and delicious in mixtures, too. Crumbled feta is also good layered in a creation.

>Blue cheeses can vary from creamy to crumbly in texture, and they make a great assertive flavor addition. Consider Gorgonzola, Danish blue, American Point Reyes, Maytag blue, Cabrales, Stilton and Roquefort.

>Spiced or flavored cheeses like hot pepper jack, garlic jack, dill Havarti and smoked provolone are other options that work well, too.

>N.H.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) Mac & Cheese

Comfort food goes upscale for grown-up tastes

Photo from "Macaroni & Cheese," Chronicle Books.

(2 -- color) Marlena Spieler's Yankee Doodle Dandy Macaroni and Cheese can be baked or made on the stove top if you're pressed for time. A combination of cheeses makes this dish melt in your mouth.

PHOTO BY NOEL BARNHURST FROM "MACARONI & CHEESE," CHRONICLE BOOKS

Box:

(1) >tips & tricks (see text)

(2) >cheese galore (see text)
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Title Annotation:LA.COM
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Recipe
Date:Nov 7, 2007
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