RECIPE: Wondra works wonders on mac and cheese

Wondra flour is the secret ingredient for Rigatoni Gratin. John Kessler for The AJC
Wondra flour is the secret ingredient for Rigatoni Gratin. John Kessler for The AJC

Credit: John Kessler

Credit: John Kessler

I keep an unruly collection of jars, bottles and dispensers next to the stove. At any time I will have good, better and best olive oils, grinders for both white and black peppercorns, light and dark soy sauces, and a nearly fetishistic collection of vinegars. Also this: a blue canister of Wondra flour. My kitchen is naked without it.

Wondra, which you may think of only as a rescuer of watery gravies, is an excellent ghost ingredient that works best when you don’t realize it’s there. A little shake fixes the texture of a too-watery Instant Pot stew, and it can turn an oily stir-fry glossy. It’s also the best dredge for pan-seared fish and scallops as it creates the impression there is no coating at all, just crispness. I’ve seen Wondra in plenty of high-end restaurant kitchens for just this purpose.

Wondra melts away so readily because it has been pre-gelatinized; in other words, it won’t bind to itself. Imagine you make a really nasty gravy consisting only of flour and water. You cook and stir over a flame until that starchy, sticky texture goes away. Then you dry it out completely and render it into a fine powder. That’s sort of the process.

I reach for Wondra so instinctively that it has become the key ingredient in my mac and cheese. My recipe — a rigatoni gratin, really — veers far from the norm in that I have engineered it to have lots of crunchy crags that hold pockets of creamy sauce. As it isn’t overly rich or cheesy, it plays well as a side dish to grilled or roasted meat.

John Kessler worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1997 to 2015 as a food writer and dining critic. He now lives in Chicago.

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Rigatoni Gratin 
John Kessler for The Atlanta-Journal Constitution
Rigatoni Gratin John Kessler for The Atlanta-Journal Constitution

Credit: John Kessler

Credit: John Kessler

Rigatoni Gratin
  • 1 pound rigatoni
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1 large garlic clove, peeled and smashed
  • A few grindings fresh nutmeg
  • Wondra as needed (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 1 cup creme fraiche (see note), heavy cream or sour cream
  • 5-6 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, finely grated
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Butter, for coating baking dish
  • Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
  • Cook the rigatoni in salted water until just done, then drain.
  • Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, scald the milk with the garlic clove. Over low heat, shake in Wondra and whisk until it is thick enough to coat a spoon. Remove the garlic. Grate in nutmeg, add creme fraiche and half the cheese. Whisk until smooth and season very well with salt and pepper. Place in a buttered baking dish and scatter remaining cheese on top. Tent foil over the top and cook until bubbling, about 25 minutes. Remove foil and continue cooking until top is browned and crispy, about 20 minutes more.
  • Note: You can make your own creme fraiche by heating pasteurized (not ultra-pasteurized) heavy cream to about 100 degrees and stirring a spoonful of live-culture buttermilk. Set it on the counter overnight, covered with cheesecloth, then refrigerate the next day. It will last several weeks in the refrigerator. Serves: 8 as a side dish

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 413 calories (percent of calories from fat, 38), 15 grams protein, 49 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 17 grams total fat (10 grams saturated), 53 milligrams cholesterol, 368 milligrams sodium.

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