The chilly nights and brisk days of fall bring with them the siren call for some serious comfort food. Truly, what makes better comfort food than a really excellent mac ‘ n cheese? I love to marry disparate cheeses in a creamy bechamel, melt them down, stir them into some pasta, and bake. The key is to use cheeses that pair well – one or two nutty, another one or two perhaps slightly sweet, or even a nice, mild blue cheese. You want to stick with cheeses with a nice melt factor and the best quality you can afford.
This recipe is a delicious way to use over left-over cheese and it truly warms the heart and soul. It comes together quickly. Grate/chop the cheese while the pasta cooks, prepare the bechamel base, whisk in the cheese, toss and bake. Twenty-five minutes later you have a steaming casserole custom made for cheese lovers. Or, prep ahead, refrigerate overnight and bake it off the next evening. With a side of steamed or roasted asparagus, it makes a dreamy, seasonal spring meal.
Mac ‘n Cheese Dreams
1 pound shell pasta, #50 size (I like De Cecco’s conchiglie rigate)
Cold water to cover
3 tablespoons kosher salt or sea salt
1/2 cup coarsely chopped Morbier
1/2 cup coarsely chopped Brie, rind removed
2 cups grated Gruyere
2 cups grated Muenster
For the cheese sauce base/bechamel:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons All Purpose flour
4 cups (1 quart) skim milk
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste (Note: season according to the saltiness of the cheese. Better to add more later if needed once the cheese has been added).
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
For the bread crumbs:
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup plain bread crumbs
kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375F degrees. Generously butter a large baking dish (I used a 4.5 liter Corningware baking dish). Bring a large pot of cold water combined with 3 tablespoons salt up to a rolling boil. Add pasta and stir to blend. Reduce heat to medium high and continue cooking until the pasta is al dente, 10 – 11 minutes. Drain well in a colander. Set aside.
Meanwhile, prep the cheeses and set aside. For the bechamel, melt the butter in a large sauce pan over medium heat. Once melted, whisk in the flour and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, for about 2 minutes. Pour in the milk all at once and bring up to a boil over high heat, whisking constantly. Season to taste with salt and ground black pepper and add the thyme. Once at a boil, reduce to medium heat and whisk in the cheeses, in batches, until thoroughly combined and melted. Add the cooked, drained pasta to the cheese mixture and stir well to coat. Pour the mixture into the buttered baking pan. Set aside briefly.
In a separate saute pan, melt the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. When melted, add the bread crumbs and stir to coat. Cook for about 1 minute or until the bread crumbs are just golden. Crumble the bread crumbs evenly over the top of the mac ‘n cheese. Bake in the center of the oven until golden and bubbling, about 25 – 30 minutes. Allow 5 minutes to rest before serving. Sprinkle with some fresh chopped parsley if desired.