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Friday, August 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 78.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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An assertive recipe for buffalo mac 'n' cheese

Recipes are antithetical to how I cook. I measure with hollowed palms and pinched fingers and scorched taste buds. This is where the magic in cooking lies - in all those heated moments over the stove in which dashes of this and that make something taste just right, or a little extra wine is added for good measure.

Just as magicians will not reveal their tricks of the trade, it is equally a mastery of illusion that cooks produce what they do based on recipes alone. Somewhere in the mix, there is magic, and that part is up to you.

As someone who turns to existing recipes for self-education, I realize that each culinary creation is a flash in the pan without documentation. In particular I think of my grandmother, who once gave me a "recipe" for the potato leek soup that my father raved about. There were many recipes I wanted from her because they are important pieces of my family history. She wrote down: leeks, potatoes, water, salt, pepper, cream. Boil until cooked, and serve.

It's still a mystery to me. I asked my grandmother, whom I call Tutu, "Tutu, it seems like something is missing - is this really it?" You can add anything you like, she said; taste it. The same went for her salad dressing, which I begged her to let me watch her make until I thought I absorbed it. But it's never quite the same as when she makes it. I can't explain it; she's the key ingredient, the binder.

I may never quite replicate her creations, and I've stopped trying. Cooking, to me, is not about replication. It's about learning to taste your food to tell what to add or dilute; about feeling the consistency with your own hands; about smelling the rising aromas to anticipate the final outcome of flavor.

And yet, to learn, we need basic guidelines to follow. The more you understand the rules, the more you understand how to bend them. That's my favorite element of cooking.

I've been called contrarian. Although that's not really true, I am fascinated by contradictions, oddities and unlikely pairings. I'm not classically trained, but I have learned to cook with my gut and trust that it's right. Crazy maybe, but right.

What I've wound up with are gastronomical golems: buffalo mac 'n' cheese, waffle-battered fried chicken, hot pastrami eggs Benedict. It's a little bit of mechanics, a little bit of magic and a little bit of mad science.

For many of these recipes, I start off conceptually. Take this buffalo mac 'n' cheese. It starts with a wordplay game ("How many ways can I make this 'buffalo'"?), and the ingredients follow.

This is "buffalo" in two senses. I use buffalo mozzarella and buffalo sauce. I've always liked the combination of blue cheese and hot wings, so I decided to make a mac 'n' cheese heavily studded with gorgonzola and bathed in the kicky goodness of homemade buffalo sauce, cooled by buffalo mozzarella and cream cheese. I even found a Buffalo Jack cheese at Woodman's. The Farmers' Market also has some great peppery alternatives.

I have to give credit to Brian Becker of Fresco, whose mac 'n' cheese recipe is the best I've had. I used it as a foundation. Taste it and enjoy.

Buffalo Mac 'n' Cheese

  • 16 ounces pasta
  • 2 cups half-and-half
  • 1 egg
  • 8 ounces gorgonzola
  • 16 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 6 ounces buffalo mozzarella (cube half, cut other half into rounds 1/4" thick)
  • 8 ounces buffalo jack, shredded
  • salt to taste
  • dash paprika and cayenne

Buffalo sauce:

  • 1 stick butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup Louisiana hot sauce (or more to taste)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Parboil pasta (about 4 minutes, not quite al dente). Make buffalo sauce by melting butter in a saucepan and mixing in hot sauce.

In a small bowl, blend cream cheese with about 3/4 of the buffalo sauce. Reserve the rest.

In a separate bowl, beat eggs, stir in half and half, blend in cream cheese mixture. Stir in cubed mozzarella and jack. Combine cheese mixture with pasta in a casserole dish or, preferably, a cast iron skillet. Salt to taste and sprinkle with paprika and cayenne. Spread remaining half of mozzarella (rounds) on pasta and cover with remaining buffalo sauce.

Bake until bubbly and slightly crusted, about 40 min. Serves 4-6.

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