By Katie Workman of Cookstr.com
If you’ve been a slave to that blue box of mac and cheese, you owe it to yourself and your family to whip up a vat of homemade mac and cheese once in a blue moon. I keep changing up the cheese, depending on what I have lying around, and it never tastes the same twice, which I find part of the thrill. You should by all means toss in other interesting cheeses that you have around, like goat cheese, Fontina, Manchego, even that leftover hunk of brie (remove all rinds you wouldn’t want to see floating around your mac and cheese).
The Dijon mustard and red pepper flakes give this a little kick, a little edge, and save this dish from being too intensively rich and creamy (not that there’s anything wrong with that). This photo shows the topping-free version.
And, no, this isn’t low fat. Thanks for asking.
For the topping (optional):
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 cups panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
- 1 /2 cup coarsely grated extra-sharp Cheddar or Gruyere cheese
For the pasta and sauce:
- 1 1/2 pound ziti, penne, or any short pasta
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
- 4 1/2 cups 2% or whole milk (however indulgent you’re feeling)
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 6 cups coarsely grated firm flavorful cheese (this is the part where you use up whatever you have around; some good basic cheeses to start with are extra-sharp Cheddar, Gruyere, and Swiss)
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400°F. and butter a 4-quart shallow baking dish (or use two smaller baking dishes). Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
For the topping, melt the butter and stir it together with the panko and Cheddar until well combined.
For the sauce, in a 5-quart heavy saucepan melt butter over medium low heat and whisk in the flour and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring (you are making a roux here — look at you!), for about 4 minutes, until blond in color, and gradually whisk in the milk. Turn the heat up to medium high and bring the sauce to simmer, whisking frequently, lower the heat, and simmer for 5 minutes until the sauce starts to thicken. Remove from the heat, and stir in the cream, grated cheese, Parmesan, Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper, until everything is smooth. Taste for seasoning.
Meanwhile, add the pasta to the boiling water, cooking until barely al dente (follow package directions, but stop a minute or two before it should be done). Before you drain the pasta, scoop out 1 cup of the cooking water and whisk it into the sauce, and then drain the pasta . Add the pasta to the sauce and stir to combine. Turn the mixture into the baking dish(es). There will appear to be a lot of sauce! Some of it will absorb into the pasta as it cooked, and in my book saucy is better than dry.
Sprinkle the panko topping evenly over the pasta (if using) and bake for about 30-40 minutes, until golden and bubbling. Give it a few minutes to sit before serving.