The chilly nights and brisk days of fall bring with them the siren call for some serious comfort food. And truly, what makes better comfort food than a really excellent mac 'n cheese? I love to marry disparate cheeses in a creamy bechamel, melt them down, stir them into some pasta, and bake. The key is to use cheeses that pair well—like one or two nutty flavors, another one or two that are perhaps slightly sweet, or even a nice, mild blue cheese. Stick with cheeses that have a nice melt factor and the best quality you can afford.
This recipe is a delicious way to make use of leftover cheese, and it truly warms the heart and soul. It also comes together quickly. Grate or chop the cheese while the pasta cooks, prepare the bechamel base, whisk in the cheese, toss, and bake—25 minutes later you have a steaming casserole custom-made for cheese lovers. Or, prep ahead, refrigerate overnight, and bake it the next evening. With a side of steamed or roasted asparagus, it makes for a dreamy autumn meal.
Creamy with a sharp edge from blended cheeses, this mac 'n cheese gets a buttery, golden bread crumb crust.
Mac 'n Cheese Dreams
Cold water to cover
3 tablespoons kosher salt or sea salt
1 pound shell pasta, #50 size (I like De Cecco's conchiglie rigate)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped Morbier
1/2 cup coarsely chopped Brie, rind removed
2 cups grated Gruyere
2 cups grated Muenster
For the cheese sauce base/bechamel:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons All Purpose flour
4 cups (1 quart) skim milk
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste (Note: season according to the saltiness of the cheese. Better to add more later if needed once the cheese has been added).
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
For the bread crumbs:
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup plain bread crumbs
kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375F degrees. Generously butter a large baking dish (I used a 4.5 liter Corningware baking dish). Bring a large pot of cold water combined with 3 tablespoons salt up to a rolling boil. Add pasta and stir to blend. Reduce heat to medium high and continue cooking until the pasta is al dente, 10 to 11 minutes. Drain well in a colander. Set aside. Meanwhile, prep the cheeses and set aside.
For the bechamel, melt the butter in a large sauce pan over medium heat. Once melted, whisk in the flour and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, for about 2 minutes. Pour in the milk all at once and bring up to a boil over high heat, whisking constantly. Season to taste with salt and ground black pepper and add the thyme. Once at a boil, reduce to medium heat and whisk in the cheeses, in batches, until thoroughly combined and melted. Add the cooked, drained pasta to the cheese mixture and stir well to coat. Pour the mixture into the buttered baking pan. Set aside briefly.
In a separate saute pan, melt 1 1/2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. When melted, add the bread crumbs and stir to coat. Cook for about 1 minute or until the bread crumbs are just golden. Crumble the bread crumbs evenly over the top of the mac 'n cheese. Bake in the center of the oven until golden and bubbling, about 25 to 30 minutes. Allow 5 minutes to rest before serving. Sprinkle with some freshly chopped parsley if desired.