It’s odd how strands of ones life come together. The other day Scott Heimendinger, the Seattle Food Geek, tweeted “Every time someone says ‘American cheese’ and they aren’t referring to the entire set of cheeses made in the US, I die a little inside.”
Wow. Really? Where’s that coming from? Scott has one of the most delightfully tweaky and geeky food blogs out there.
He amazed the culinary hobbyist world with his plans for a do it yourself sous vide machine that might be assembled for $75. He works for Modernist Cuisine, so it’s not like Scott is opposed to processing, or processed, food. I mean, someone who has angst over where he’ll find 7 liters of liquid nitrogen on Saturday or is excited about using an ultrasonic cell disruptor isn’t afraid to process some food.
Maybe it’s not that the food is processed that is the issue, but that it isn’t very good. And, sadly, most American Cheese isn’t very good. Even though we’re cheese snobs, we love American Cheese. Sometimes, American Cheese IS the right cheese for the job!
Of course, you have to get past the yellow stuff wrapped in individual slices. Go for the white stuff. Two that are consistently good are Boar’s Head and Land’O’Lakes, My real love affair with American Cheese began with the “Cheesy” episode of the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” in which Chef John Besh swooned over the Crab au Gratin at The Bon Ton Café in New Orleans. He talked about how it was the best overindulgence he could imagine, and had a near orgasmic experience with the dish. He speculated about the cheeses in the dish, naming five or six nice cheeses. When he asked the waiter to confirm his guesses, the waiter chuckled and said, “No, only American Cheese”. John had his doubts, but the waiter produced an ingredient list from the chef.
About a year later, I was in New Orleans and made the pilgrimage.to the Bon Ton Café. If anything, John understated the wonderfulness of the dish. My toes curled. I made noises like Sally in the (in)famous restaurant scene. It was that good.
I was so enamored of the dish that I had it a few days later at the Crescent City Brewpub. It was made with a decent cheddar cheese, and that is where I learned how important it is to use American Cheese in this dish. The cheddar overwhelmed the crab. With cheddar cheese, it was a cheddar cheese dish. It was decent, and if I hadn’t had the Bon Ton’s version, I’d have really liked Crescent City’s version. With the American Cheese used at the Bon Ton, the dish was in beautiful harmony.
I knew I had to make the Bon Ton’s version of that dish at home! I hit the ‘net and Googled for recipes. I tried and discarded several, and then modified one. At first I had thought that the original recipe had some mushrooms in it, but finally realized that was just darker lumps of crab. I think this is close. I need to go back to the Bon Ton and try theirs again.
So, with no further ado, here it is:
Crabmeat Au Gratin
3 TBSP Butter
3 TBSP Flour
1/8 tsp White pepper
1/4 tsp Salt
1 1/2 c Half-and-half
1 1/2 Jiggers dry sherry
1 dash Cayenne pepper
1/2 lb Grated American cheese
1/2 lb lump blue crab meat (you can use less expensive crab meat if your budget is tight)
Buttered bread crumbs
2 tb Grated American cheese for topping
Minced parsley (optional)
Preheat oven to 450F
Melt butter in a saucepan; remove from heat and add flour, salt and pepper. Blend in hot half and half, stirring all the time.
Return to heat and stir until it forms a nice cream sauce.
Add dry sherry and cayenne pepper.
Stir in cheese. Stir until the cheese has melted into the sauce.
Add the crab meat; combine gently so as not to break up the lumps of crab meat.
Spoon into a casserole or individual ramekins (I prefer the individual ramekins).
Sprinkle with buttered bread crumbs and a bit of grated cheese.
Run into a hot oven for about 10 minutes or until cheese on top melts, bubbles and browns. Top with parsley before serving, if desired.
Every time I’ve had, and made, this dish I thought the sauce was too thin when it was served. But as it cooled it thickened and was just right. Serve it with a garden salad, a crisp white wine and some nice bread. I think you’ll see American Cheese in a new light.
And Scott – I hope this didn’t kill you man. Really!