Before I get to the recipe, I wanted to point out that Amazon.com is selling a one-year subscription to ESPN the Magazine for $5 this week. I believe that this will also get you a year of Insider.
One of my wife’s friends from “moms group” made this recipe for my wife and daughter, and it was a hit … but I can’t help tinkering, and since I can’t abide cheddar cheese, I decided to reboot it with Gruyère, a milder cheese that’s also one of the best melting cheeses I’ve ever used.
Gruyère also happens to be the classic cheese at the heart of a sauce mornay, and mac and cheese is little more than cooked pasta covered in a sauce mornay with extra cheese and baked till semi-firm and golden brown on down. A sauce mornay is built on a sauce Béchamel*, one of the “mother sauces” and a somewhat secret ingredient in dishes like lasagna. A Béchamel starts with a flour-butter roux to which one adds milk (the traditional method is to steep an onion studded with a bay leaf and a few cloves in the milk first) and then simmers very gently until thickened. Add Gruyère and Parmiggiano-Reggiano to a Béchamel and you have a mornay.
*So one of the Food and Wine pavilions at Epcot this year had some dish served in a Béchamel sauce, and while I was walking by, I overheard a female tourist from somewhere in the northeast yell to her family that the dish was in a “buh-KAM-el” sauce. Granted, not everyone knows what a Béchamel is or how to say it, but if you saw that word and didn’t know it, how far down the list of potential pronunciations would “buh-KAM-el” be? Twentieth? Eightieth? A hundred and twelfth?
Since Gruyère is a French and Swiss-French cheese I went for one of the Frenchiest herbs I could think of, thyme, which pairs very well with Gruyère, and added parsley for some background music. Tarragon is probably the other herb I most associate with French cooking, but it’s too assertive for this dish in my opinion, and it’s more of a spring herb than a fall/winter comfort food flavor. Chives might work. I guess what I’m saying is that you can and should play with the herbs in this dish, just bearing in mind that the cheese flavor is on the soft side and you don’t want the finished product to taste like grass or licorice.
I’ve tried the dish with and without bread crumbs in the topping and I prefer it without, but it’s just a matter of taste. I also cut the mustard (!) in half to keep it in the background; it’s also a very French flavor but not everyone likes a mustardy smack in the mouth.
Whole Foods has organic whole wheat elbows under the 365 label for $1.99. I found a Swiss Gruyère at Trader Joes for $9.99 a pound; a roughly 10-11 ounce brick should give you enough for two batches.
1 1/2 cups elbow-shaped pasta (whole wheat works fine; you can try other shapes but it may alter the cooking time in the oven)
3 T unsalted butter
3 T all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp dry mustard
2 cups milk, anything but skim
1 1/2 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1 Tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 1/2 cups (about 5 ounces) grated Gruyère cheese (nothing too fancy like “cave aged for 20 years” or anything)
1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp Parmiggiano-Reggiano
salt/pepper to tastes
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a saucier (if you have one) or deep skillet or sauté pan, melt the butter and allow to foam but not brown. Add the flour and whisk constantly until a small paste forms. Add the mustard.
3. Gradually add the milk (you may choose to heat it first for faster cooking), still whisking constantly to create a smooth liquid.
4. Allow the mixture to simmer gently for 5-7 minutes until it’s visibly thickened and coats the back of a spoon. Add the herbs, then begin adding the Gruyère in small handfuls, whisking each addition into the sauce until it’s fully integrated. (If you add it all at once and whisk, you will end up with a big congealed clump in the center of your whisk – a hot mess if ever there was one.) Add 1/2 cup of the Parmiggiano-Reggiano and kill the heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper (white pepper works well here for aesthetic reasons).
5. Cook the pasta in several quarts of salted water and drain. You don’t want the pasta sitting and waiting for the sauce, so I usually put a small pot of water on high heat when I start the roux.
6. Grease a casserole dish and add the pasta. Pour the sauce over the pasta and toss to coat. Spread the remaining Parmiggiano-Reggiano over the top and bake until the top is golden, brown, and delicious and the center is slightly firm, 20-25 minutes, 30 if you want to be able to cut firm, stable wedges of the dish.
UPDATE: Reader Steve asked about adding leeks and/or bacon. I haven’t tried this variation, but here’s how I’d approach it:
* Chop the bacon finely and crisp in a skillet, rendering out as much fat as possible. Remove the bacon to a paper towel, then add to the casserole right before it goes in the oven.
* Pour out all but maybe 1 Tbsp of the fat from the skillet and use that to sweat the leeks. Slightly browning them is optional but would add more flavor – just don’t burn them. Add with the bacon to the mix right before baking.