April 8, 2011

Toasted Bread Crumb Topping (or How to Dress Up your Mac'n'Cheese)

As much as I like to cook and eat pasta, I never really like plain ol' mac-n-cheese. It's just too... plain.

Back when I was living in the United States, I would make a decadent baked mac-n-cheese studded with diced smoked ham and oozing with Gruyere or Gouda (or both). It was dense, it was substantial. But I haven't cooked that dish in Jakarta, because I don't have an oven (yet. Oh, how I miss having an oven and all the scrumptious things I could bake in it. But that's another post.)

I came up with this 'topping' because I miss having the browned, crispy bits of goodness that would adorn an oven-baked mac-n-cheese. And because I didn't have any bacon to crisp and crumble over the top.

So I took Japanese-style bread crumbs (panko) and 'toasted' it on a fry pan with some olive oil and butter to be the savory crunch to complement the creamy pasta.

Even though butter-toasted panko is wonderfully nutty by itself, I wanted to have more flavor, more depth — so, in went some dried Italian seasoning* and also lime** zest and a light sprinkle of its juice to add some zing.

* because I live in Jakarta, people. Finding fresh Italian herbs here is a frustrating task; if not impossible. Only certain high-end supermarkets on the other side of town stock them, if at all.

** why lime? Because I didn't have a lemon. As simple as that. If I had a lemon, I'd use it. Flexibility is key ;).

I made this topping a few hours before I cooked the mac-n-cheese itself. My youngest son kept trying to sneak a 'pinch' of it to snack on. Actually, I had to restrain myself from doing the same thing. It's already so good by itself!

But its ultimate destiny (at least as I intended it) is to enliven a plain mac-n-cheese. And boy, lunch was lively! The creamy mac-n-cheese topped with these Toasted Bread Crumbs was a hit with my whole household, from a toddler to grandmothers (and even my two maids, who had never eaten any pasta until they work for me, enjoyed it).

This thing is definitely a keeper! :)


1 cup of panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs)
3-4 tablespoons of olive oil
3-4 tablespoons of butter
(or you can just use all olive oil or all butter)
Dried Italian seasoning or any fresh Italian herbs of your choice/mix, to taste
1 lime/lemon, zest and juice
salt & pepper, to taste

- heat the oil and butter on a frying pan (I use non-stick) over medium heat.
- add the panko, stir to coat with oil/butter evenly.
- stir continuously to ensure even browning of the crumbs. Lower the heat if needed, to avoid the crumbs from browning too fast.
- when the crumbs start to turn golden brown and give off a delicious nutty aroma, sprinkle the Italian seasoning, lightly at first. You can always add more later.
- continue to stir until the crumbs are evenly golden grown, about 5 minutes. Don't let them burn!
- turn off heat.
- add salt & pepper to taste.
- add a light squirt of the lime/lemon juice to the crumbs (maybe less than 1/2 teaspoon) and mix thoroughly. You just want a subtle hint of citrus, not to make it sour. And the crumbs should still be loose, not clumpy/wet.

- using a Microplane grater or a regular grater with very small holes, zest the lime/lemon, start with just 1/3 of the skin (the green/yellow layer only, not the bitter white part underneath it). Mix it thoroughly and taste it. Add more if needed. Again, you're aiming for a whiff of citrus in contrast to the nutty brown aroma of the crumbs. So go lightly on the zest and juice. The main attraction should still be the crisp, savory crumbs.

Sprinkle over mac-n-cheese, or any other pasta dish that need an extra 'oomph'.

And please try not to snack on the topping or eat it by the spoonful like my 4 year-old son did. Okay? :)