The Perfect Gift for Cheese-Lovers (and maybe picky eaters, too)

The Perfect Gift for Cheese-Lovers (and maybe picky eaters, too)

from Melt by Stephanie Stiavetti and Garrett McCord

Sometimes it helps to lower your expectations. I don’t mean for Melt, the luscious cookbook I’m about to share with you. The recipe I tried, in which cozy, cheddar-topped apple pie meets a decadent version of classic mac & cheese, turned out every bit as irresistible as it sounded.

I mean, lower your expectations about what your kid will eat.

In fact, abandon those expectations completely.

I never imagined Harry would taste something called “Montgomery Cheddar Macaroni with Baked Apples.” It has fresh thyme in it, and my kid spends long, frustrating minutes scraping specks of oregano off his pizza. It has two kinds of fancy cheese in it, neither of which is mozzarella. Plus he hasn’t eaten mac & cheese in years—not my mom’s old-school version, and not the kind from a box. Anticipating his refusal, I held out some plain elbows and doubled the baked apples. Y’know, the way you do when you’re dealing with an eater so picky you write about it for the New York Times.

from Melt by Stephanie Stiavetti and Garrett McCord

Harry helped me assemble the individual dishes, which get run under the broiler until you want to forget all decorum and just dig in. (Seriously, the aroma of melting cheese and browning breadcrumbs will drive you bananas.) He tasted the apples. Mmm. He tasted the casserole. And instead of doing his usual scrub-tongue-with-napkin routine, he asked to try some of the completed dish. So we put together a teeny-tiny serving just for him. I figured it would become a post-dinner treat for the chef.

When we sat down to eat, Harry did his usual routine: He picked up a single elbow and examined it carefully before lifting it to his lips (he seems to think we’re trying to trick him into eating liver or something). He chewed. He swallowed. And he went back for another elbow. Stephen and I resisted the urge to acknowledge this behavior, which experience has proven to be counter-productive. Instead we traded looks across the table and plotzed telepathically.

In the end Harry didn’t eat all of his teeny-tiny serving, probably because he didn’t want me to drop dead of shock at the dinner table, but he did eat a dozen individual elbows. He deemed it “so-so.” Friends, “so-so” in Harry-speak is the equivalent of a four-star review from Pete Wells.

Harry’s unexpected embrace of something so complex meant I had to toss the blog post I was writing in my head while I cooked. In that post I said that Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese by Stephanie Stiavetti and Garrett McCord is filled with sophisticated, sumptuous variations on and subversions of our favorite childhood dish. It’s not a cookbook for busy parents looking for weeknight dinners, or parents with unadventurous eaters. But it is, without a doubt, the perfect gift for the cheese-lover in your life. If you know someone who drops “epoisses or “triple cream” into regular conversation, putting Melt under the tree will help you win Christmas forever.

That part about Melt being the perfect gift? That’s still true. But instead of reserving it for fancy-pants cheese snobs, I’m giving it a thumbs-up for frazzled parents, too—who am I to deny them something so potentially life-changing?

Melt by Stephanie Stiavetti and Garrett McCord

Disclosure: Stephanie and Garrett are real-life friends of mine, but that doesn’t make their book any less AMAZING. And if you buy it through the links in this post, I’ll earn a small percentage as an Amazon Associate.

Montgomery Cheddar Macaroni with Baked Apples
From Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 4-6

6 Pink Lady, Honeycrisp, or Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons sugar
pinch of salt

16 ounces elbow macaroni
1 1/2 cups milk (I used 1% and it was fine)
5 tablespoons butter, divided
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
20 ounces Montgomery Cheddar, shredded (substitute Beecher’s Truckle Reserve, Lincolnshire Poacher, any sturdy aged British Cheddar)
6 ounces Gruyere, shredded
3 cups fresh cornbread crumbs (fresh regular breadcrumbs are fine, too)

Preheat oven to 375°F.

  1. In a small baking dish, combine apples, lemon juice, cinnamon, sugar, and salt. Toss together and cover the dish with foil. Bake for 45 minutes. Leave the oven on.
  2. While the apples are baking, prepare the casserole. Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking dish. Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until barely done. Drain, and spread the macaroni in the baking dish.
  3. Prepare the mornay sauce: Heat the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat. As soon as it starts to steam and form tiny bubbles around the edges of the pan, turn off the heat. Place a medium saucepan over medium heat, and melt 3 tablespoons of the butter. Add the flour and stir with a flat-edged wooden paddle or spatula, just until the mixture (called a roux) begins to take on a light brown color, scraping the bottom to prevent burning, about 3 minutes. Slowly add the milk, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens enough to evenly coat the back of a spoon—a finger drawn along the back of the spoon should leave a clear swath. Remove from the heat and stir in the salt, pepper, and thyme. Add the cheeses, reserving 1 cup of the Cheddar, and stir until completely melted. (Mine wasn’t perfectly smooth, but it worked out fine anyway).
  4. Loosen up any clumps in the macaroni, then pour the cheese sauce over it. Toss until all the macaroni is coated. Spread a thick layer of breadcrumbs over the casserole and dot with the remaining butter. Bake for 30 minutes.
  5. Remove the casserole from the oven and turn on the broiler. Portion the mac & cheese into small ovenproof dishes. Top each with a heaping spoonful of baked apples and 3 tablespoons of the reserved Cheddar. Slide the dishes under the broiler until the cheese is browning, a melted, bubbly layer of yum. Serve immediately.

MAKE BABY FOOD: The flavors here are sophisticated, definitely, but there’s no reason a baby couldn’t eat this. You can puree some of the soft interior of the casserole along with just a bit of the apples—they’ve got added sugar so don’t go crazy—or serve as finger food.