I’ve been searching for some time for a homemade mac and cheese recipe with which to break Muppet of her addiction to a certain, well known, boxed mac and cheese mix comprised of a tasteless cheese powder and sad little pasta shells. All prior efforts have failed miserably with the dish either being “too cheesy”, “too dry”, “too crunchy on top”, or “too spicy” due to the incorporation of various seasonings.
The whole “too cheesy” thing makes no sense to me at all (I mean, can there really be such a thing?), but I have been sympathetic to her other critiques and carried forth in search of a suitable replacement to her favored bowl of cardboard shells and re-hydrated cheese goo. I am happy to report that finally, with the help of my very talented food-writer friend Melissa Pasanen (long-time correspondent for the Burlington Free Press, as well as a staff writer for Edward Behr’s incomparable “The Art of Eating”), and Chef Rick Gencarelli, I have found a mac and cheese recipe that will hopefully serve to banish all boxed versions from my house in the future.
Melissa and Rick are the cookbook writing duo that brought us Cooking with Shelburne Farms: Food and Stories from Vermont (Shelburne Farms Books) , one of my very favorite cookbooks. For those of you who have never heard of the place, Shelburne Farms is a very special environmental education center and National Historic Landmark, nestled along the shores of Lake Champlain in Shelburne, VT. The property is a large (1400 acres) working and teaching farm, and includes a delightful Inn that was once a summer “cottage” of one of the Vanderbilt clan. The Inn, which is so beautiful that my wife and I decided to get married there a couple of years ago, is open from May to October, and is home to a truly spectacular restaurant, one of our favorites. Rick Gencarelli, the Executive Chef there, takes full advantage of not only the produce and livestock grown on the farm, but has developed close relationships with other regional producers, to offer his guests the very finest in local and sustainable cuisine.
I made two slight modifications to their recipe for mac and cheese in order to appease Muppet’s inner critic, first I eliminated the horseradish called for in the recipe as it was deemed too much of a “heat” risk. Second, I swapped out their call for “craggy” croutons as a topping with a more delicate panko breadcrumb topping that I picked up as a tip from yet another cookbook, Andrew Carmellini’s Urban Italian: Simple Recipes and True Stories from a Life in Food . I use Carmellini’s “Crumbs Yo” on all sorts of dishes (fish, pasta, salads), keeping a zip-lok of them in my freezer at all times….they were awesome on this mac and cheese.
Boris was the master cheese grater and ham cuber as we prepped this dish, while I kept myself busy browning the ham, making the roux, and cooking the pasta. This dish comes together very quickly, and while the recipe says it serves eight, count on having at least a couple servings left-over. This was very good news for Arthas, who enjoyed it as a breakfast treat on the following three days! And what of Muppet you ask? Two thumbs…way up!
- 1 pound medium pasta shells
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 pound ham steak, cut into 1/4 inch cubes
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 cups whole milk
- 1 pound coarsely grated cheddar (use the best you can find, preferably from Vermont)
- 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
- kosher salt and fresh black pepper to taste
- 1/3 - 1/2 cup "Crumbs Yo" (in a saute pan heat 2 tablespoons EVOO over medium heat and toast 1 cup of panko breadcrumbs, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper until golden brown. Spread on a plate to cool. Keep for 2 days in the fridge, or a long time in the freezer)
- Preheat oven to 350℉ and lightly butter a 9x13" baking dish.
- Put a large pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta. Cook per package instructions until just al dente, drain and rinse with cold water to prevent sticking.
- In a large, heavy bottomed saute pan or skillet set over medium-high heat, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil for 2-3 minutes. Add the ham and cook until browned, 5-7 minutes, remove from the pan and set aside.
- Set the pan back over medium heat, melt the butter until foamy, whisk in the flour and cook, whisking constantly, 3-4 minutes, until the mixture turns a light tan color.
- Add the milk to the pan, whisking constantly to remove any lumps, and bring the sauce to a simmer. Cook until the mixture is thick enough that a line drawn by your finger across a coated spoon leaves a mark, about another 2 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and stir in the grated cheddar.
- Pour the pasta into the pan of cheese sauce, add the ham and stir gently to combine. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt and pepper and pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish, sprinkle the top with the grated parmesan.
- Bake in the oven, uncovered, until the top is golden and bubbly, about 25-30 minutes. About 5 minutes before complete, pull the dish from the oven and sprinkle the top with a light coating of "Crumbs Yo", set back in the oven for the remaining 5 minutes, remove and serve.