Grown-up Mac and Cheese
When I make macaroni and cheese, which is often—we keep a version on the menu most days at the Market—I like to use pasta shells that really hold the sauce (if childhood tells us anything, isn’t that the point?). Contenders include orecchiette, ziti, penne, ditalini, conchiglie and, of course, classic elbow noodles.
Makes one (9- by 13- by 2-inch) casserole / Serves 8 to 10
1 pound elbow noodles (or any bite-sized pasta)
1 tablespoon olive oil
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
5 cups milk
2 cups (8 ounces) grated sharp Cheddar cheese
2 cups (8 ounces) grated Gruyere cheese
1 (5-ounce) package baby spinach (about 3 handfuls)
1 tablespoon hot sauce
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Lightly butter a 9- by 13- by 2-inch baking dish.
2. Prepare the pasta, cooking a few minutes less than package directions, until al dente. Drain and toss in a colander with the olive oil and set aside to continue draining.
3. Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, as it begins to foam, being careful not to let it brown, about 2 minutes. Whisk in the milk about 1/2-cup at a time and bring to a low boil, whisking constantly. Reduce the heat to simmer and cook until thick, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and slowly stir in 3 cups of the cheese until it melts.
4. Stir in the spinach, hot sauce, salt, cayenne pepper and black pepper until the spinach is wilted.
5. Add the cheese sauce to the pasta, season with additional salt and pepper if desired and toss to coat the pasta. Place half the pasta into the prepared baking dish and sprinkle with half the remaining cheese. Repeat with the remaining pasta, scraping all the cheese sauce from the bowl. Pour the cream over the casserole. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs evenly over the top, cover with foil and place in the oven to bake until bubbling around the edges, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, uncover and continue to bake until golden brown on top, 10 to 15 minutes more. Let stand about 10 minutes before serving warm.
Sidebar: In the Kitchen: Children’s Mac and Cheese
I’ll admit, of all the versions of macaroni and cheese we serve at the Market, my favorite is that made simply with elbow noodles and Cheddar. It takes me back to the blue boxes of my youth, which were as much about pride as they were about dinner. My mother allowed me to make Kraft Macaroni on my own whenever she had to work late. For a take on that standard without the powdered cheese, eliminate Gruyere from the Grown Up recipe, double the Cheddar and eliminate the spinach and hot sauce.