I interrupt this regularly scheduled (healthy) programming.
Let’s take a break from vegetables for a moment, shall we? Everyone needs a killer mac ‘n cheese recipe up their sleeves. It’s one of those dishes that works all year, whether for a wintery Sunday dinner or summer backyard BBQ.
The catch? Ask anyone what their idea of the BEST macaroni and cheese is, and you’ll get many, many different responses. If you grew up on blue box variety, you’re partial to stove top versions. From the South? Yours is probably super-creamy and may include Velveeta. I recently had a version at Yardbird in Miami with 5 (count ’em – five!) types of cheese, curly torchio pasta and herbed breadcrumbs. Uh, yeah. It was the perfect first course for the fried chicken, shrimp and grits and Mississippi mud pie that ensued. Proof that I don’t live in kale and quinoa, as my Instagram may lead you to believe…
Growing up, I enjoyed many a mac at family gatherings. They were always casserole-style and topped with crispy breakcrumbs. My version uses 4 types of cheese: Pecorino-Romano, Gruyere and 2 types of cheddar, an sharp Irish variety and a super-aged crackly English one. I’ve been known to mix it up, but I like this combo. Afterall, it’s called macaroni and CHEESE, so do your guests a favor and use the best you can afford. The bonus? Sharper cheese means more flavor, which translates into a more satisfying (re: smaller) plate to satisfy.
I like the rustic look of a bubbling, volcanic casserole dish, but you can also bake it in a rustic cast-iron skillet or oven-safe ramekins for individual portions.
Baked 4-Cheese Macaroni
Makes one 3-quart casserole (about 8-12 servings)
Inspired by Martha Stewart’s Perfect Macaroni and Cheese
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
5 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons coarse salt, plus more for water
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons dry mustard
8 ounces extra sharp chedder, grated (about 2 cups)
8 ounces sharp cheddar, grated (about 2 cups)
4 ounces grated Gruyère
4 ounces grated Pecorino Romano
1 lb. small shape pasta (use your favorite – I like classic shells)
- Heat oven to 375F. Remove the stick of butter from the wrapper and set aside. Rub the inside of a 3-quart casserole dish with the butter wrapper. Set aside. Have all your cheese grated and placed in a large bowl before you start cooking.
- Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet. Add panko and stir, coating with the butter until just lightly brown. Remove from heat, allow to cool and transfer breadcrumbs to a bowl. Wipe out the skillet.
- Warm the milk in a saucepan over low heat. Meanwhile, melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter in the skillet. When the butter starts to bubble up, sprinkle in the flour. You’re looking for a mixture that resembles wet sand. Cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute.
- While constantly whisking, ladle in the hot milk a little at a time. Cook, continuing to whisk, until the mixture bubbles and thickens, about 10 minutes.
- Remove the skillet from the heat. Stir in the salt, nutmeg, pepper, cayenne, dry mustard and about 3/4 of the cheese. Stir until smooth.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta underdone, about 3 minutes. Drain and rinse well. Stir into the cheese sauce and combine well.
- Pour the mixture into the buttered casserole dish. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and panko.
- Bake about 30-40 minutes until golden. To really crisp up the top, place the dish under the broiler for a few minutes. Allow to rest for a few minutes before digging in.