Tuesday Tip: Comfort Cookin' – Hearty Ham & Kale Mac 'N' Cheese Casserole with Caramelized Pear Dessert
Windsor, ON - This week's Tuesday Tip is twofold: cooking comfort food, and the comfort of cooking itself.

"Are you feeling fed up with frigid temperatures and mountains of snow? Maybe feeling a case of the winter blues," asks Melanie de Liberato, Chef at St. Clair College's Eatery 101. "Or are you tired of the repetitive, winter season hobbies? Time to try your hand at something new yet fun: comfort cooking!"

The on-campus chef says cooking comfort food warms you up in more ways than one! Creating rich and hearty dishes makes you feel full and satisfied as you hibernate indoors during the winter, but the actual act of cooking has a comfortable aspect to it as well! She says cooking is cozy, calming and comforting in several ways.

"Cooking stimulates the sense, which in turn increases feel-good endorphins," explains de Liberato. "And cooking is meditative. Any activity which takes your whole attention - especially if it's simple and repetitive - can have a calming, meditative quality."

Cooking is also creative, de Liberato points out.

"And there's a connection between creativity and overall wellbeing," says de Liberato.

Cooking - and especially cooking comfort food - makes people happy, she adds.

"You serve others your creation and feel good when they like it," she explains.

Overall, de Liberato says cooking provides a fun indoor activity for all ages, allotting time for bonding with loved ones and generating wholesome, stimulating entertainment during these record-breaking, dreadfully cold winter months.

"There are many interesting comfort foods that can be whipped up in a flash, and one of the all-time favorites is a bowl of classic mac n' cheese," says de Liberato. "But why stop at dinner when you can have dessert too? Turn an ordinary Sunday into a Sunday Funday by getting the family together for a great meal."

Below is the recipe and directions for a twist on an old classic: hearty ham and kale mac 'n' cheese casserole. The flavour-packed meal ends with some caramelized pears for dessert, which are served with a sweet mascarpone concoction and homemade lady fingers.

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Lightly grease a large size casserole dish.

For the mac n' cheese sauce you will need:

  • 1 pound honey smoked ham, cut into medium dice cubes
  • 1 large onion, medium dice
  • 1 each red pepper and orange pepper
  • 2oz. chopped kale
  • 1/2 a small seeded, small dice jalapeno (for extra spicy, add the whole jalapeno)
  • 2 cloves of garlic finely minced
  • 5oz. unsalted butter
  • 4oz. flour
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1.025 liters of milk
  • 1 cup of heavy cream
  • 1oz. shredded Swiss cheese such as Gruyere
  • 1oz. grated parmesan
  • 1oz. shredded medium aged orange cheddar
  • 1/3 fresh parsley leaves finely chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • nutmeg to taste
  • salt to taste
  • pepper to taste; either white or black or for a unique taste try crushed pink peppercorns
  • 1 package of cooked whole wheat (or white) macaroni noodles

For the topping:

  • 1.5 cups of shredded mozzarella
  • 1.cup panko bread crumbs
  • 1 tsp. fresh finely chopped tyhme
  • 1 tbsp. grated parmesan
  • Combine the bread crumbs, parmesan and thyme

Procedure:

  1. In a large stockpot melt 1oz. of the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and sweat until translucent but do not brown, stirring often. Add the ham and cook for two minutes. Add the red/ orange peppers, kale, jalapenos and garlic. Cook for two minutes, no longer. TIP: Not browning the vegetables will maintain the textural integrity of the vegetables and will prevent the garlic from burning which could create a bitter, unpleasant taste in the sauce. Remove the mixture from the stockpot.
  2. Reduce the heat slightly. Add the rest of the butter and melt. Add the flour and stir well with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. TIP: Creating a blonde roux that is light in color will thicken the sauce, giving it a velvety smooth texture and the butter will add extra shine to the body. Cook the roux until all the flour is incorporated and small bubbles begin to form but do not brown or burn. Using a whisk, slowly add the chicken broth. Bring the mixture to a simmer.
  3. Combine the cream and the milk. Using the whisk, very slowly ladle some of the simmering broth into the milk/cream liquid. TIP: Tempering the hot chicken broth into the liquid mixture will prevent the dairy from curdling when it is incorporated into the sauce. Once some of the broth has been whisked in, beat the tempered milk/cream into the stockpot.
  4. Put the bay leaves in the sauce and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the sauce for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with the salt, pepper, and nutmeg.
  5. Remove the heat. Take the bay leaves out and discard. Add the cheese and parsley. TIP: Removing the sauce from the heat will prevent the cheese from taking on a grainy texture and will prevent the parsley from wilting.
  6. Mix the vegetable and ham medley back into the sauce.
  7. Place the noodles in the greased casserole dish. TIP: Lightly greasing the baking dish will help the noodles from sticking to the bottom.
  8. Add the sauce, vegetable and ham mixture to the dish and stir well. Sprinkle the mozzarella over the noodles and sauce. Dust the dish with panko bread crumb topping
  9. Wrap the top of the dish in tinfoil and put the casserole in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes.
  10. Remove the tinfoil from the dish and continue to bake to 5 minutes. TIP: Baking the dish covered for the initial 20 minutes will melt the cheese without scorching the panko bread crumb mixture.
Mac & Cheese Casserole
Mac & Cheese Casserole

While the mac n' cheese casserole bakes, prepare your caramelized pear dessert.

For the caramelized pears you will need:

  • 4 ripe red pears
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup salted butter
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 tbsp. brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup chopped pistachios
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tub of mascarpone
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp. honey

Procedure:

  1. Wash and dry the pears. Cut the pears into halves and remove the seeds.
  2. Set the pears in a medium pan and place a dollop of butter in the centre of each pear half. Drizzle the honey, cinnamon and nutmeg over the over the pears. Cook for approximately five minutes over moderately high heat.
  3. In a small pan over moderately high heat, roast the pistachios with the salt, brown sugar and a small dollop of butter. This will take no longer than two to three minutes. Do not burn.
  4. Take the pears off of the heat.
  5. In a bowl, combine the vanilla, mascarpone and the teaspoon of honey.
Caramelized Pear Dessert
Caramelized Pear Dessert

Optional: lady finger cookies on the side - You will require:

  • 2oz. egg yolk at room temperature
  • 1oz. sugar
  • 3.5oz. egg white at room temperature
  • 1.5 oz. sugar
  • 1 lemon zested and juiced
  • 3 oz. sifted pastry flour
  • 1 tbsp. confectioner sugar

At this point, the casserole should be ready to come out of the oven. Allow the casserole to rest. Reduce the heat of the oven 375 and continue assembling the lady fingers.

Procedure:

TIP: Ensure that the eggs are warm and at room temperature prior to baking. This will produce a better product and will add more air to the recipe, increasing the volume.

  1. Using a hand mixer, beat the egg whites on high speed until they form stiff, firm peaks. Beat in 1.5 ounce of the sugar until the egg whites are light and thick. Gradually beat in the lemon juice and zest. TIP: It is imperative that the tools and bowl being uses are cleaned and sterile or the egg whites will not grow in volume, nor form stiff peaks. Also, when separating the eggs, do not contaminate the egg whites or with the egg yolks because the whites will not whip into a meringue.
  2. In the bowl with the egg yolks, beat in 1 ounce of sugar until light, airy, thick and pale yellow.
  3. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the egg white mixture into the egg yolk mixture.
  4. Carefully fold in the sifted pastry flour in three stages. Do not deflate the mixture.
  5. On a parchment lined baking sheet, use a medium flat tip to pipe the dough into strips three inches long. Sprinkle the confectioner sugar onto the strips of dough.

Bake for eight to nine minutes.

Take the lady fingers out of the oven and cool while you and your family chow down on your comforting and decadent mac n' cheese casserole.

When you're ready for the decadent dessert, spread some vanilla mascarpone on the plate. Place four lady fingers on the creamy, vanilla mascarpone, then place two caramelized pears halves on the lady fingers. Drizzle a spoon of the spiced honey sauce on the pears and plate. Speckle the pears with the roasted, salty pistachios.

"Do not feel too guilty while feasting because the dairy from the cheese is providing essential lipids, the ham provides protein, the whole wheat noodles complex carbohydrates which supply the body with long-lasting energy and the vegetables provide wholesome nutrients, fiber and minerals," points out de Liberato.

Both recipes yield 4 portions.

Bon appetit!

Mac & Cheese Casserole
Mac & Cheese Casserole