Tom and I have pretty similar tastes when it comes to food, but there is one big point of contention between us. I like saucy mac n’ cheese. He likes the dry, baked version. I don’t know if this is an “English” thing, but either way, I had to come up with a recipe that works for both of us. This incorporates a little oven action without compromising the creaminess. You can easily riff off this recipe by switching out the cheeses, veg, or meat to your liking.
- A block of aged goat Gouda
- A block of Comte
- 1/2 a block of Parmesan
- 1 small white onion, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 Tbsp of chives, chopped
- 250 g (1 cup) of diced pancetta
- 150 g (1/2 cup) of peas
- 2 Tbsp of butter
- 2 Tbsp of flour
- 1 large container of double cream (1/2 quart of half and half)
- 50 ml (1/4 cup) of vermouth
- 1 package of penne or other large, tubular pasta
- generous amount of fresh black pepper
- 50 grams (1 cup) of breadcrumbs
Preheat the oven to 170C/350F. In small nonstick pan, cook the pancetta until crispy. Drain the fat and set aside. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the peas and blanche for ten minutes. Remove the peas and set aside. Cover the pot and keep the water on standby for the pasta.
Grate all of the cheeses and set aside. In a small saucepan, heat the cream and hold until ready to use. In a separate large pot, melt the butter. Add the onions and garlic and cook gently for about 5 minutes until tender. While the veg cooks, add the pasta to the boiling water.
The next step begins the “cheese” sauce. It starts as a bechamel which is a basic white sauce made up of fat, flour, and cream. Once the cheese is added, it technically becomes a Mornay sauce. This is the foundation of the dish, and it’s also the easiest to muck up. I’ve botched my fair share of sauces, but if you go slowly and pay attention to the consistency, you can avoid any trauma in the end.
To the butter, onions and garlic, add the flour to make a roux. Whisk continuously so it doesn’t burn, and cook gently for 2 minutes. When the roux reaches a golden colour, whisk in a bit of the hot cream. It will form a thick paste, but as you continue whisking in cream a little at a time the bechamel will start to take on the right consistency. Stop adding cream when the sauce is thick and coats the back of your spoon. Then add the pepper and the vermouth. Next, add the cheeses gradually. Make sure to stir continuously so the cheese melts and doesn’t burn on the bottom.
Keep the heat low on the sauce and check the pasta. It’s fine if it’s a little on the al dente side since you will continue cooking it in the oven. Drain, but save a mug of the water. Place the pasta in a large bowl, add the peas, pancetta and chives. Add the cheese sauce and toss until all ingredients are evenly coated. If the mix is too thick, add a little pasta water. Place everything into a casserole dish and sprinkle with bread crumbs. Bake for 10 minutes, then serve.