Saying that a particular mac and cheese recipe is really good always seems a little silly to me because I’ve rarely met one I didn’t like. The box stuff is a different story, of course, though I think even it has its place and time, like when the pantry is nearly bare and I’m so lazy and unmotivated that I can barely bring myself to boil water. But homemade mac and cheese? It’s pretty much always delicious.
I had been thinking about making mac and cheese, a quintessentially autumnal dish to warm the belly and sate our desire for rich and fatty foods, when I came across a post with Mark Bittman’s recipe for macaroni and cheese on Serious Eats. A long-time fan of How To Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food, I’ve had my eye on Bittman’s new cookbook, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian from the moment I heard it was coming out. After trying this recipe, a sort of fancy mac and cheese variation, you can bet that this book went straight to my Christmas wish list. Mixing the comfort of classic mac and cheese with the crunch of walnuts and breadcrumbs and the tangy zing of gorgonzola, this dish hit the spot and the leftovers inspired envy in jealous co-workers slogging down their usual sandwiches and takeout.
Gorgonzola and walnut mac and cheese (serves 4 as a main dish, 6 as a side)
2 1/2 cups milk (low-fat is fine)
2 bay leaves
1 pound elbow, shell, ziti or other cut pasta
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup grated cheese, like a mild/medium cheddar
1 cup gorgonzola or other blue cheese, crumbled
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup or more bread crumbs, preferably fresh
3/4 cup roughly chopped walnuts
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and salt it.
2. Cook the milk with the bay leaves in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. When small bubbles appear along the sides, about 5 minutes later, turn off the heat and let it stand.
3. Cook the pasta to the point where it is almost done but you would still think it needed another minute or two to become tender. Drain it, rinse it quickly to stop the cooking, and put it in a large bowl.
4. In a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter; when it is foamy, add the flour and cook, stirring, until the mixture browns, about 5 minutes. Remove the bay leaves from the milk, and add about 1/4 cup of the milk to the hot flour mixture, stirring with a wire whisk all the while. As soon as the mixture becomes smooth, add a little more milk, and continue to do so until all the milk is used up and the mixture is thick and smooth. Add the cheddar and stir.
5. Pour the sauce over the noodles, toss in the Parmesan, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Fold the gorgonzola and walnuts into the noodle mixture (if you do it earlier, the cheese will tint the whole things an unpleasant gray). Use the remaining 1 tablespoon butter to grease a 9-by-13-inch or similar-size baking pan and turn the pasta mixture into it. Top liberally with breadcrumbs, and bake until bubbling and the crumbs turn brown, about 15 minutes. Serve piping hot.