Mac Attack Interview with Cheese Expert, Laura Werlin
We continue our Mac Attack journey with a lovely Q&A with Laura Werlin, one of the country’s foremost authorities on cheese. We are thrilled to include her recent cookbook Mac & Cheese Please! as part of our Mac Attack Prize Pack on Facebook. Click here for details. And read below for a delicious springtime recipe for asparagus, swiss, and dill mac & cheese from Laura!
Laura, you are considered a foremost expert on cheese. Can you tell us how you got started, and when you realized this would be your vocation?
I often say that the way I got into cheese is that it got into me. I’ve loved it ever since I grew teeth. I made it into a profession a little bit after that, though! I started by becoming a food writer. Very shortly after that I knew I wanted to write about cheese because it was my passion. I didn’t know anything about it, though, so I set out to learn. I haven’t looked back since.
What is the best way to store cheese?
Let me start with the best way NOT to store cheese: don’t wrap it in plastic wrap. That’s because plastic wrap often imparts a flavor. Instead, wrap it in waxed or parchment paper followed by a layer of plastic wrap. Even better is cheese paper, which is now available in many specialty food stores and online.
What cheese tool can you not do without?
There are so many cheese tools in my arsenal that I adore, but I guess a sturdy skeleton knife – the kind that has holes in the blade, which prevents cheese from sticking – is the best all-purpose knife. Although it’s designed for soft cheeses, it does the trick with firm cheeses too as long as they’re not too hard. For those cheeses, it’s best to choose a short, stubby knife. That allows you to dig out small chunks of cheese, which is a better way to serve (and eat!) the hard cheeses.
We understand you are also a pairings expert. Any simple tips to share on pairing cheese with – Wine? Beer?
For wine, I like to pair lighter cheeses with lighter wines, and more often than not, white wines rather than red. That’s because red wines often have tannins from their skin and from oak aging, which create a kind of drying sensation on the tongue. Cheese often exaggerates those tannins, which is not something you want to do. If you prefer red wine, though, then choose one with lighter tannins such as a pinot noir, and match it with semi-firm cheeses such as a younger cheddar. Lightly oaked or unoaked chardonnays can be nice with Swiss cheeses such as Jarlsberg.
With beer, I find that lagers are compatible with semi-soft, milder cheeses like a young cheddar or Monterey Jack, while more assertive beer such as an IPA is quite good with a mild blue cheese. Dark beers such as porter love a hearty cheese like Irish cheddar, and Imperial stouts go nicely with aged cheeses such as gouda and parmesan.
We learned that you didn’t grow up on mac & cheese; in fact you always loved cheese in a big way, but noodles, not so much. Can you remember the moment that changed?
I can’t quite remember exactly when I started liking noodles, but I do know I was well into adulthood before I did. One thing’s for sure: there’s no question that a cooking class I took in the late 90s cemented my love for the noodle.
With so many varieties of cheese to choose from, how do you determine best use of a noodle for baked macaroni?
While the shape of noodle makes some difference, what I discovered is that the size of the noodle matters more. If you use a pasta that’s particularly large, such as large shell pasta, the mac & cheese turns into a pasta dish rather than the creamy, cheesy concoction we love about mac & cheese. If you stay away from large-size pasta, you’ll almost certainly be fine with whatever shape you choose. In the end, though, you can’t go wrong with the traditional small elbow macaroni.
Growing up, what were your family’s favorite cheeses?
I hate to admit it but there’s no question that single-wrapped American cheese slices made an early appearance in our household. But the for-company cheese was always and without exception Jarlsberg. That was half the reason I loved it when my mom entertained!
What cheeses are in your refrigerator, now?
The shorter answer to this question is which cheeses are not in my fridge?! Of course, I have Jarlsberg in it (actually it’s the Lite version because I like to use that in my lighter mac & cheese recipes), fresh goat cheese, a cloth-wrapped cheddar from Vermont, blue cheeses from Oregon, and Italian-style cheeses from Wisconsin, to name just a few.
Can you remember the first time you tried Jarlsberg?
I don’t exactly know when I had my first taste of Jarlsberg, but I do remember that it rocked my world. I couldn’t quit eating it. I couldn’t have been more than about 10 years old.
Thank you for sharing this delicious Asparagus, Swiss and Dill Mac & Cheese from your new book. We agree it’s a perfectly light spring dish. What wine would you pair with it?
The asparagus and dill in this recipe call for a sauvignon blanc, a pinot grigio, or the Austrian grape called Grüner Veltliner. Although all these wines are all fairly high in acidity (think green apple), you want to try and find one that’s a little richer in style because of the creaminess of the dish and, the star of the show – the cheese! You might also look for an unoaked or lightly oaked chardonnay as well.
asparagus, swiss, and dill mac & cheese
This is as light and refreshing as a spring day. The dill adds a wonderful zing, and the vegetables make it flavorful and healthy. As with all the recipes in this chapter, feel free to make it a little richer by using regular cheese and/or full-fat milk. But as written, it’s good for the taste buds and the waistline.
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
8 ounces penne pasta (or use medium shell pasta)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion (about 6 ounces), peeled and cut into 1/4-inch pieces
8 ounces medium asparagus spears (5 to 7 spears), ends trimmed,
spears cut crosswise into ¼-inch slices, leaving 1-inch tips
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into ¼-inch dice
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill, plus sprigs, cut into 3-inch pieces, for garnish
Freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups reduced or low-fat milk
½ cup skim milk
6 ounces low-fat Swiss or Jarlsberg cheese, coarsely grated
(about 2 cups)
1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
½ teaspoon dry mustard powder
Fill a 4- to 5-quart pot about three-quarters full with water and add 1tablespoon of the salt. Bring to a boil and add the pasta. Cook, stirring once or twice, until tender but firm, about 4 minutes, and drain. Reserve the pot. In a medium skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion, asparagus, carrots, and water and cook until the vegetables are tender, 7 to 8 minutes. Add the chopped dill and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside. Using the same pot you used to cook the pasta, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Slowly whisk in the flour and stir constantly until a paste forms, 30 to 45 seconds. Continue stirring for 1 to 2 minutes more, until the mixture starts to darken slightly and smell a bit nutty. Lower the heat to medium-low. Slowly add the milks and the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and cook until the mixture is just beginning to thicken and bubble around the edges, 5 to 7 minutes. It should be thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Add the cheeses and mustard powder and cook until smooth but not runny. It should be similar in texture to cake batter. If it’s soupy, continue cooking until it thickens.
Add the pasta and vegetables and stir to combine. Ladle into bowls and garnish with the dill sprigs. Serve right away.
mac & cheese, please
lighten up, cool down