Now I’m guessing that at some point in your childhood you ate a bowl, or perhaps many bowls, of baked macaroni and cheese. That thick, gooey, yellow, cheesy one-dish-meal, prepared with elbow macaroni swimming in some form of yellow cheese-food wiz!
You might still eat it today in that original form. For me it has been relegated to cafeteria, supermarket, or institutional steamtable fare. Now don’t get me wrong, if you like it, then keep eating it; however, I have moved on.
I always liked the idea of the dish, because there’s something comforting about a warm bowl of pasta with a cheese sauce. And for me, pasta—what’s not to like—the Mac ’n Cheese needed to be elevated, repurposed if you will, for more discerning palates.
So playing around in the kitchen over time, I came up with my take on what I now call Adult “Mac ’n Cheese.”
The two most important ingredients are the pasta and the cheese, so I started to experiment with those first. Once that was determined, the remaining ingredients were included to simply bring the dish together.
The elbow macaroni can stay if you are a purist, but there are so many other interesting shapes and textures of dried pasta that can add another dimension to the overall dish. For example, Cavatelli, Fusilli, Orecchiette, Penne, Radiators, Rigatoni, Small Shells, Trumpets, or Zucca. Whatever shape you choose, allow for ¼ pound of pasta per person, and cook the pasta 2 minutes less time than the package directions specify because the pasta will finish cooking during the baking process.
Now for the cheese. I’m not really certain what yellow cheese-food wiz is, but it had to go. Instead, my approach was not to use just one cheese, but a combination of three or four to achieve a more interesting depth of flavor and a nicer texture than what you get from yellow goo in a bowl.
The cheeses I selected and worked with to end up with the best combination were: Asiago Pressato, Caciocavallo, Fontina, Gruyere, Pecorino, Sharp White Cheddar, Smoked Blue, Smoked Gouda, Taleggio, and Toma. The cheeses I eventually decided on for the final dish were Asiago Pressato, a young fresh Asiago which melts very well; Caciocavallo, which is a southern Italian cheese similar to Provolone, which adds texture and is not as salty; Smoked Blue from the Rogue Creamery in Oregon, which crumbles nicely and adds a soft, understated smoky note; Taleggio, which adds richness and creaminess to the dish. For the topping, some grated Pecorino Romano was selected. So four cheeses in the pasta mix and one in the topping mix.
1 pound of dried pasta (small shells were used)
1 generous cup each of the cheeses:
Asiago Pressato (grated)
Smoked Blue (crumbled)
Taleggio (¼-pound piece placed in the freezer for 15 minutes; makes it easier to cut it into small ¼-inch dice)
½ cup finely grated Pecorino Romano
1 large onion finely minced
2 to 3 sprigs of fresh thyme minced
2 to 3 sprigs of fresh parsley + stems finely minced
1 teaspoon pimentón dulce (sweet Spanish paprika)
½ cup flour
4 cups Half&Half
1 generous cup breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper to taste
White truffle oil (optional)
Cook the pasta, 2 minutes less than the package instructions, and drain well. Set aside in a large bowl to cool, drizzled with 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil to prevent sticking.
In a large sauté pan over medium heat, add 2 tablespoon each of butter and olive oil to cook the onion until it softens. Sprinkle with the thyme and season with salt and pepper. Stir to combine and set aside.
In a large saucepan melt 2 tablespoons of butter and then whisk in the flour until a smooth roux forms. Sprinkle the pimentón over and slowly add the Half&Half, whisking continuously until the mixture reaches a smooth consistency without lumps. Whisk in the sautéed onion, mixing until combined, and then set aside.
Working with the bowl of pasta, sprinkle over the prepared cheeses to be baked in the pasta and mix to combine. Next, pour the sauce mixture over the pasta and again mix to thoroughly combine.
Generously butter a baking pan, approximately 14 x 10 x 3, and pour out the pasta mix, spreading evenly in the pan.
Finally, mix together the Pecorino, bread crumbs, and minced parsley, then sprinkle over the pasta to create the topping crust. Then, if using, lightly drizzle some truffle oil over the topping.
Bake the dish in a preheated 375-degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes until the topping is golden brown and the sauce is bubbling below the surface. The sauce will be mostly absorbed by the pasta. Allow the finished dish to cool for several minutes to make cutting into serving portions easier.
The dish comes together quickly once you have assembled all the ingredients. Part of the fun is exploring different pasta and cheese combinations to come up with the one you like the best. Makes a great dinner dish accompanied by a green vegetable or a side salad, and leftovers are even better the next day!
Give this receipe a try. Happy Cooking.
“Yes, of course you could do this at home, and you should!” A/W