THREE CHEESE “MAC & CHEESE” WITH BREADCRUMBS & HERBS
This is an unconventional method of mac & cheese, and was born out of both a time crunch and curiosity.
Skip ahead with these links:
- Story Time (aka my version of a blog)
- Tips & Tricks
- Pots, Pans & Utensils
STORY TIME: AN UNCONVENTIONAL METHOD
Most mac & cheese recipes that use fresh cheese include a base sauce such as bechamel to melt the cheese and form the base of the sauce. It works well and I agree that it's a technically sound way to do it. This isn't that recipe though and I admit that the method I lay out below is slightly unconventional for a mac & cheese.
The intent of this recipe is more about achieving something tasty, fairly quickly (for a baked pasta) and simple steps than it is about being technically correct. Fundamentally a cheese sauce is a combination of heated liquid and cheese usually involving butter + flour + milk for bechamel and the addition of gruyere to create a mornay sauce and any such variation. Or, heavy cream for a crema-style cheese sauce which if we are talking flavor and mouthfeel is insanely delish. Either way, both versions apply the heat to a pot and involve a certain amount of temperature control and stirring.
This recipe skips the pot and countless minutes of stirring and instead relies on the cheese + pasta + milk + cream mixture to bake & bubble together while the breadcrumbs become golden. When I cooked this for the first time, it was out of a need to prepare the dinner quickly and a bit of curiosity. The result was pretty astounding and produced a creamy, cheesy, and toasty mac & cheese.
There are culinary rules and there are traditions, and any curious mind has to ask why. Sometimes a specific dish's origin story traces back to a specific point in time, and it's clear why the dish is the way it is. Sometimes culinary rules are put in place just to keep the cooks on track to make the chef's food the chef's way. Sometimes it's worth exploring the boundaries whether on purpose or accident and see what happens. It doesn't always produce something tasty but sometimes something amazing happens. Like foie gras mousse, I find it hard to believe that a sous chef (that's who usually handles higher price ingredients in restaurants) just decided to put the foie into a blender without something happening during the cooking. The sous chef must have overcooked the terrine and out of self-preservation didn't want the chef to find out so they whipped it into a mouse and said "Chef! Look at this, it'll be perfectly served with brioche toast points and caviar". That may or may not be a true story (and the sous chef will remain unnamed). Side note, sous chefs do this kind of thing to chefs, so I imagine the origin story of foie gras mousse was probably close to that recounting...
Prep the ingredients ahead of time and baking later can be done however if you do this, keep the milk & cream mixture separate from the pasta & cheese, and only combine it when you're ready to bake. Let everything come to room temp before baking though, 30 minutes is enough time, a cold pan and ingredients will increase the cooking time.
TIPS & TRICKS
Ingredients are always important and so is a technique, even if applied unconventionally.
- The sauce forms as the milk & cream heat and the cheese begins to melt. Cheese has a way of doing what it does and the gentle warming and melting help it to become melty instead of granular and "broken".
- Temperature is everything with melting freshly shredded cheese into sauce form, too hot on the burner, and bam! burnt and curdled.
- Cheese, so much cheese. There are lots of flavors and textures, some best served on the antipasti platter, some amazing in a sauce. Select cheeses that are slightly softer 3 to 6 months aged as anything that is 12 months aged will have a difficult time becoming melty.
- Shredded mozzarella is a good go-to cheese for most uses. It doesn't provide a ton of flavor, but it does give the dish more substance and body.
- Cheddar has a sharper flavor that is well pronounced and mostly melty. It's a great cheese to add, just make sure there is more mozz than cheddar.
- Super tasty flavorful cheeses like gruyere, fontina, gouda all add a whole new level of depth. Any combo of these styles of cheese will have the most impact on the aroma and flavor, so pick the ones you like!
- Brie, ok so this is maybe a little over the top. If you do add this, pick one that is well-ripened, it'll be super melty to dip the garlicky toasts into.
This is a very rich preparation and is best served as a side with a more balanced meal including a petite salad with vinaigrette, herb-roasted chicken, and veggies.
POTS, PANS & UTENSILS
- 9" x 13" baking dish that will also serve as the presentation vessel
- standard glass style, will work just fine and is the best choice to see what's going on underneath the top
- ceramic will work just fine
- Staub / Le Creuset style, does increase the cooking time slightly but the presentation part is extra nice
- large pot
- long handle strainer/sieve
- wooden spoon
- large bowl
- small bowl
RECIPE FOR THREE CHEESE “MAC & CHEESE” WITH BREADCRUMBS & HERBS
Serves 4 to 6 entree portions or 8 to 10 side portions. To serve 4 entree portions, double the recipe and use larger pans.
- 12 ounces Della Terra Casarecce*
- 5 ounces shredded mozzarella
- 5 ounces mild to medium cheddar cheese, shredded
- 6 to 8 ounces fontina, gouda or gruyere style of cheese, shredded
- a small wheel of brie if you're feeling super fancy
- 8 to 10 ounces milk
- 6 to 8 ounces heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
- 2 teaspoons fresh rosemary or thyme, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
- Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated as garnish
- Fresh basil, hand torn as garnish
Preheat the oven to 425F.
In the large bowl, combine and mix all the shredded cheese, black pepper, and herbs. Set aside about 1 cup to sprinkle on top of the assembled mac.
In the small bowl, combine and mix the panko and olive oil with a pinch of salt and pepper. Set aside.
Mix the cream and milk let come to room temp. Set aside.
METHOD FOR COOKING THE PASTA
Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons of kosher salt. Cook the pasta for the suggested time, tasting it at the lower number and cooking until the al dente meets your preference.
Using the sieve, remove the cooked pasta and add it to a large bowl with the cheese blend.
ASSEMBLE THE DISH
Combine the cooked pasta and the shredded cheese mix together quickly and evenly place the mixture into the baking dish.
If you are adding the brie, nestle it into the center of the dish.
Evenly pour the milk & cream into the baking dish.
Sprinkle the remaining cheese evenly.
Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the sprinkled cheese.
Make sure the oven has achieved 425F.
Place the baking dish in the center of the oven, placement is important.
- too low and the bottom can burn easily.
- too high and the breadcrumbs can toast too quickly.
Baking time is approximately 20 to 25 minutes depending on the oven, make sure to check it. If you use convection, it'll cook on the faster side.
You're looking for a slightly golden top and luscious bubbles of melty-ness. You just want it to cook enough for the cheeses to melt and bubble enough to create a cheesy sauce with the milk and cream.
Like all fresh cheeses used in sauces that get cooked, slightly less cooking will always be better than too much cooking.
Take the dish out and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes then garnish with parmesan and basil and serve.
SUBSTITUTIONS & ALTERNATIVES
PASTA: The recipe is written for our Casarecce and is the perfect type of rich & dynamic sauce to try our ancient grains with. They have a deep flavor that pairs really well with cheese.
VEGETARIAN: Good to go! As long as you enjoy cheese.
VEGAN: Admittedly I don't have a vegan version of this quite yet, check back as I'll keep this in mind to write.