I FIRST TASTED Talya Miller’s macaroni and cheese at The Comfort Zone in 2017, and I haven’t stopped talking about it, eating it or (on two occasions) dreaming about it.
Miller’s been cooking in and around Seattle for decades — she mentions learning the secrets to her excellent barbecue sauce at age 19, working at Jim Beal’s Wild Boar Barbecue in the Central District — and was a foster parent to high-needs children for almost as many years. With such experience, it’s no wonder she excels at maximizing comfort, and her homey combination of elbow noodles; delicate cream sauce; and a toasty brown, crispy cheese blanket provides some of the finest edible emotional support I have ever known.
Her restaurant, owned in partnership with her daughter, LaShon Lewis, is located within The Royal Esquire in Columbia City and has been limited to takeout and delivery for most of the year. While the mac holds up fine to the takeout/reheat process, in the interests of maximizing everyone’s comfort, we spoke about what, exactly, makes her dish so magnificent, so you can use her big-picture advice to bake your own version. No specific recipe here, just expert advice — and even your mistakes will still be mac and cheese.
A big surprise in her technique is an emphasis on cooling the components. Cook the noodles, rinse in cold water and chill. Make the cream sauce, cool, fold in grated cheese and combine with the chilled noodles. Then cool the assembled casserole before topping and baking. She says that while you can skip that final cooling, it makes the whole thing better, a bit like those stews and soups that note how much better they taste the next day.
My favorite feature is that crispy cheese. Miller says that occasionally a customer complains about “burnt cheese” — which she confidently dismisses, because, “Without that brown cheese, it might as well be stovetop.” She doesn’t use any crumbs, just a mixture of cheeses that can be tailored to suit your palate and budget. Cheddar is always present, but there’s been variety in the other two; cheese gets expensive, and she acknowledges that times aren’t always flush. The technique is what matters most.
Just before finishing it in the oven, she pours on a layer of heavy cream, then sprinkles on grated cheese. While baking, the cream forms a barrier so the cheese doesn’t ooze down into the casserole. Perched on top, it becomes a thin layer of gloriously golden-brown crunchiness, the mark of perfection for any fan of baked mac and the perfect contrast to her deceptively light cream sauce.
About that sauce: It’s cream-colored and features that blissful combination of richness and delicacy found in the best renditions of cheesecake. No hint of pastelike floury flavors, and no stringy cheese connecting the noodles. All sorts of zippy, smoky, garlicky flavors that have little to do with cheese. Pure bliss.
This, Miller says, took her a while to develop, and cream cheese is one of two key ingredients, for its tangy, light binding qualities. The other is her custom seasoned salt, which distributes its flavors evenly throughout and makes sure each batch tastes the same. Her lips are sealed on the seasoning, and while it’s possible to pick out a few spices if you taste it on a fingertip, there’s a richness to it that I can’t place. She’s just begun offering both spicy and regular seasoned salt for sale ($8 to $10), along with regular and spicy barbecue sauce ($10 to $14).
I plan to serve mac and cheese at my scaled-down Thanksgiving this year, because I can imagine no more soothing combination than smoked turkey on top of baked macaroni. At the moment, it’s a tossup whether I’ll be ordering in or winging it with my own experiments, and that seems fine. If there are any lessons to this year, it’s that making firm plans is laughable, and that great macaroni and cheese might not cure ills, but it sure can comfort.
The Comfort Zone: 5016 Rainier Ave S., (206) 246-2800; thecomfortzonesoulfood.com