When you think of macaroni and cheese, do your thoughts turn to casseroles of elbow noodles baked with a cheddar cheese-based sauce? You wouldn't be alone—for many, macaroni and cheese, even with variations that include broccoli, bacon, or other treats, is a dish that is often very much the same from one kitchen to the next.
Photo by Matt Armendariz, Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company
Cookbook authors and bloggers Garrett McCord and Stephanie Stiavetti are trying to change that perception with the release of their book Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese. Can this popular dish be reinvented as a salad? A soup? Dessert? McCord and Stiavetti prove it can in many delicious and interesting ways. From Tomato Soup with Star Pasta and Vella Dry Jack Crisps to Smoked Idiazabal Mason-Jar Potpies With Lamb and Tomato Sauce, the recipes cross continents, cultures, and cooking techniques, and are guaranteed to change your definition of this classic dish.
Cover image of Melt courtesy Little, Brown and Company
Here's a peek at the book's video trailer:
Genie Gratto: How did you decide to work on a cookbook together? What really sparked the project for the two of you?
Stephanie Stiavetti: We've been friends and colleagues for years, and we realized that our combined energies and platforms were very powerful—much more so than they were individually. Plus, the idea of having someone to share the work with was definitely inviting. We are each others' built-in editor, recipe consultant, fact checker, sounding board, art director, and wanna-be therapist. Having two minds on the same project made the finished product that much stronger.
As for the idea of macaroni and cheese, we actually joked about doing a mac and cheese book, as in, "Oh yeah, just what the world really needs… another Yankee Doodle Lobster Mac!" But then we realized that we could do something special here, something that shared an ideal we both carry with us: that real cheese should be on every table and in every refrigerator. In that way, mac and cheese became more of a canvas for our creativity instead of a simple cookbook topic.
GG: How did you settle on the overall theme of the book?
Garrett McCord: We both have an absolute love of artisan cheese and we wanted to present many of those cheeses through a lens of a popular and comforting dish. Artisan cheese, like wine, seems scary and fancy to so many people. Melt is designed to be a gateway book for great, real-cooking mac and cheese recipes but also to introduce people to a selection of handcrafted artisan cheeses. Our goal is that everyone who reads this becomes a more curd fluent.
Photo by Matt Armendariz, Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company
GG: What was it like writing and testing recipes together? Did you divide and conquer or was it a collaborative process?
SS: When we first started working on Melt, we spent a lot of time on the phone, dreaming up flavor combinations. A lot of the recipes in the book are collaborations between the two of us, where we'd get together and create dishes side by side. For other recipes, one of us would call the other and say, "Hey, what do you think of this idea?" Then we'd chat about it, adding and extracting ingredients and methods until it solidified. There are even some parts of the book where we can't remember who wrote what, because our writing and editing styles blend so well. In a lot of ways, writing this book was one long conversation about cooking.
GG: Throughout the cookbook, you draw from a wide variety of culinary traditions and cultures. Were you both familiar with all these approaches from the start, or did your recipe development require a lot of research into new types of cooking and techniques?
GM:A lot of research went into many of these recipes. The Indian paneer korma recipe kicked my butt up and down the street. I needed more guidance on building the flavor properly, so Stephanie sought out Vijitha Shyam for help, and we crafted a truly authentic Indian-style mac and cheese without getting gimmicky. The sopa seca recipe also earned me a scolding from Diana Kennedy for using tomatillos instead of traditional tomatoes. (It's still epic in flavor.)
GG: Though each recipe offers alternatives to the recommended cheese ingredient, you've written these to feature very specific cheese varieties. When you made those selections, how did you decide which cheeses would have the most "staying power"—in other words, cheeses you knew would be produced and available for a long time?
SS:That's the thing about cheese—it can be local and seasonal, just like produce. Because we didn't want to limit the reader to the original recipe, we brought on friend and cheese aficionado Kirstin Jackson to help us create additional cheese selections and pairings for each dish, in hopes that it would create some flexibility for home cooks. The majority of our dishes can easily be made with any number of cheeses—it's a matter of finding what you like. We're also working on a database on our website that will house even more alternatives, including more common cheeses for readers in areas that don't have a huge selection.
GG: How difficult was it to maintain forward motion on the cookbook project while keeping up your own blogs? What worked best for both of you in terms of juggling your existing audience and still making sure you were making progress on the book?
GM: I keep a pretty rigid blogging schedule, so it was simply a matter of cramming everything in and sticking to it. After awhile it just becomes part of your everyday habit. We both work days jobs, work as freelance writers on the side, and keep blogs—when it came to the cookbook, it more became how do we make our blogs and writing assignments coincide with the book? Are we researching anything about a particular recipe that would make a fascinating blog post? When we needed to educate ourselves about some aspect of history or science that related indirectly or directly to the book but that wouldn't necessarily be content for it, we repurposed that information in another outlet to kill a few birds with one stone.
GG: By the time you finished recipe development and testing, were you totally sick of macaroni and cheese, or is it still a favorite?
SS: We still love macaroni and cheese, but during recipe testing there were definitely weeks where we both lived off of a bag of spinach greens and a bottle of bitters to try and get our digestion back in order. ;) The thing is, over the time we took to write Melt, we cemented a new lifestyle in which we consistently cooked with incredible cheese. When you do something for a solid year, it becomes a hard habit to break! But with all the macaroni and cheese we're eating for book events these days, we both make a beeline for the Brussels sprouts as soon as we get back to our own kitchens.
Do you have a favorite macaroni and cheese recipe that you think uses a particularly interesting or delicious cheese? Share your links and thoughts in the comments below!
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