In my mind, homemade mac and cheese is a baked affair, covered with a distinct layer of crunchy, cheesy breadcrumbs. Sure, you can make equally good saucy macs (and we will, later this week), but a recipe like Herbed Mac and Cheese is what I crave when the temperature dips below 60 degrees. Ellen Brown's adaptation of La Laiterie's casserole in her Mac & Cheese is classic mac and cheese at its best: rich and soothing, but with a deeper complexity from the woody herbs and funky brie. It's not exactly fast to make, but each step is simple and intuitive. As with all of the baked recipes in the book, this Herbed Mac can be assembled (minus the topping) up to a couple days in advance, so you won't need to schelp for hours right before dinner.
Why I picked this recipe: For my first mac and cheese, I wanted to stick with the basics: bechamel, cheese, pasta, and breadcrumbs. A little extra herbs never hurt, either.
What worked: Everything came together without a hitch.
What didn't: I'm nitpicking here, but I would have liked a little more sage and thyme (perhaps a teaspoon of each) and a little more breadcrumbs (next time I'd them up to a whole cup).
Suggested tweaks: This mac and cheese is practically a blank canvas for tweaking, but it'd be best to keep things simple. Changing the balance of cheese (more melty Gruyere and Brie would make the whole thing creamier) or stirring in smaller vegetables like peas would work well here.
Reprinted with permission from Mac & Cheese by Ellen Brown. Copyright 2012. Published by Running Press. Available wherever books are sold. All rights reserved.
- Yield:serves 4 to 6
- Active time: 45 minutes
- Total time:1 1/2 hours
- 1/2 pound penne
- 4 ounces Brie
- 3 ounces Gruyère, grated
- 3 ounces sharp white cheddar, grated
- 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, divided
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary (substitute 1/4 teaspoon dried)
- 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh sage (substitute 1/4 teaspoon dried)
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme (substitute a pinch dried)
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 2 cups whole milk, warmed
- Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
- 3/4 cup plain breadcrumbs
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 13x9-inch baking pan. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Cook the pasta until it is just beginning to soften to the al dente stage. Drain the pasta, run it under cold water, and return it to the pot.
Scrape the white rind off of the Brie, and chop it finely. Combine the Brie with the Gruyère and cheddar, and set aside 1/2 cup of the cheese mixture.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute, or until the mixture turns slightly beige, is bubbly, and appears to have grown in volume. Stir in the rosemary, sage, thyme, and nutmeg. Increase the heat to medium, and slowly whisk in the warm milk. Bring to a boil, whisking frequently. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer the sauce for 2 minutes.
Add the cheese to the sauce by 1/2-cup measures, stirring until the cheese melts before making another addition. Pour the sauce over the pasta, and stir well. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and transfer the pasta to the prepared pan.
Heat the remaining butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the breadcrumbs, and cook for 2 minutes, or until the crumbs are golden brown. Combine the browned crumbs with the remaining cheese mixture, and sprinkle it over the top of the dish.
Bake the casserole for 20 minutes to 30 minutes, or until the cheese sauce is bubbly and the crumbs on the top are deep brown. Allow to sit for 5 minutes, then serve.