I’ve always loved cheese (I have a hilarious/embarrassing childhood story about my love for cheese), so it naturally follows that I’ve always loved mac and cheese. I always looked forward to the one Saturday a month that mom made the Kraft stuff for me and my brother, and I continued to love it (and try to not eat the whole box) well into my early 20’s. But then one day I went to Artisanal (aka the temple of cheese) with my friends Elise and Kristen and we decided to be indulgent and order a side of their mac and cheese. It was amazing – light years better than the stuff made from powdered cheese, and even more satisfying. I have no idea what blend of cheeses they use, but it was perfect – pungent, creamy, rich, and perfectly seasoned.
I first made my version about 5 years ago for Thanksgiving, and it found its way back onto our Thanksgiving menu this year at my mom’s request (I had actually made it for her birthday a few weeks earlier, as it’s one of her favorite things that I make).
There are, of course, infinite variations on mac and cheese, and it’s pretty hard to make pasta + cheese bad, but I strongly believe that there a few simple rules to which you should adhere: 1) neither onions nor orange cheese have any place in it; 2) the right mixture of cheeses can make it great – I really like 50% fontina for its creamy texture, and 25% each gruyere and extra sharp white cheddar for their excellent sharp flavors; 3) subtle spicing can make all the difference – I use a liberal dose of white pepper and nutmeg, and a hint of allspice. Sounds a bit pumpkin pie-like, but, believe me, it works very well and is just barely discernible.
Luxe Mac and Cheese
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 pound medium pasta shells
2 ¾ cups lowfat milk
4 tablespoons flour
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon white pepper
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon allspice
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
8 ounces fontina cheese, grated
4 ounces gruyere cheese, grated
4 ounces sharp white cheddar cheese, grated
¾ cup panko
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 425 F. Use 2 teaspoons of butter to lightly grease ramekins or a large baking dish.
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta 2-3 minutes less than the suggested cooking time (it should be very al dente). Drain the pasta and set aside.
Add the milk to a medium saucepan and bring it to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low.
Meanwhile, melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a large pot set over medium heat. Add the flour and cook for 2-3 minutes, whisking occasionally. Slowly stream in the hot milk and whisk constantly. Cook until the mixture is thick and bubbly, about 8 minutes.
Remove the pot from the heat. Stir in the spices and then the cheeses.
Melt the remaining 1 teaspoon of butter in a small microwave-safe bowl. Add the panko and melted butter to a bowl and mix well to combine. Add the parmesan cheese and mix to combine.
Place the ramekins on a baking sheet and evenly distribute the mac and cheese between them, or put the entire mixture in a large baking dish. Top with the panko mixture.
Bake until bubbly and the panko is golden brown, 20-25 minutes. Serve immediately.