Forget Mac 'n' Cheese. Say Hello to Creamy, Cheesy Baked Risotto

Here's a trick for turning a-la-minute risotto into a casserole-like make-ahead baked dish. [Photographs: Daniel Gritzer]

Risotto is not exactly a make-ahead food. Yes, you can par-cook the rice, or speed up the process with a pressure cooker, but ultimately it's a dish that needs to be finished right before serving. But when I was working on my arancini (rice balls) recipe, it occurred to me that there might just be a way to use the same lessons I'd learned from the arancini and apply them to a make-ahead risotto recipe.

The challenge with arancini is making sure they come out moist and juicy. Most recipes have you start by cooking a risotto, then chilling it and forming it into balls, and finally deep frying them. The problem is that risotto, once cooked and cooled, does not become moist again when reheated unless additional liquid is stirred in to loosen it up.

My solution with the arancini was to take a trick from croquette recipes by folding a bechamel-like mixture into the cooked rice: bechamel, when reheated, liquifies more than risotto alone will. It worked beautifully, creating arancini with crisp deep-fried exteriors and flavorful rice centers that flow when you bite into them.

As I was frying my test batches of rice balls, I realized that what I had actually created was a make-ahead risotto: one that melts and softens when reheated. And since forming and deep-frying rice balls is admittedly a little bit of a pain in the butt, I wondered why, if pressed for time, I couldn't just load the rice filling into a baking dish and then finish it in the oven, all in one shot.

To test it out, I folded some diced mozzarella into the chilled rice mixture, then spooned it into a baking dish and topped it with a simple crispy topping of panko bread crumbs mixed with Parmesan cheese and some melted butter.

Because I had found that sushi rice worked best for the arancini, I also used it here (risotto rice had a tendency to blow out a little). But you could also make this work with risotto rice like carnaroli or vialone nano.

The results were delicious. Just like a baked pasta, it's a little thicker than its à la minute counterpart, and is deeply satisfying in that rib-sticking winter foods kind of way. In essence, this is the risotto equivalent of a baked mac and cheese.

20141031-baked-risotto-daniel-gritzer-4-edit.jpg

The beauty is that you can make the whole thing well in advance, keep it refrigerated, and then pop it in the oven until heated through and browned on top. My recipe here uses the same Milanese-style saffron flavor as my arancini, but there's no reason you couldn't make this basic idea work with any risotto flavor.

I'll still make deep-fried rice balls from time to time, but I have a feeling this make-and-bake method may get a lot more play at my place, especially when I'm entertaining.