This weekend we are ‘springing forward’ (don’t forget!), an annual signal that the end of winter is near and the luxury of spring and the blossoming of farm-fresh vegetables will soon be our reality. This promise of brighter, warmer days comes at a cost however, and we still have a few remaining dreary nights ahead of us. I find my recipe for macaroni and cheese to be an immediate cure for the winter blues. Warm, soothing and perfectly decadent, this macaroni and cheese is as simple as it is impressive. Mushrooms and leeks partner to add an elegant touch to a dish that has been warming our hearts for as long as we can remember. A combination of cheddar and havarti cheese brings sharpness and depth to the sauce, bathing the noodles as they bake until browned and bubbly under a crunchy coating of breadcrumbs and parmesan. I think we will all agree that macaroni and cheese is a perfect meal for any season of the year. This recipe offers a bridge, taking us from winter into spring. Watch the video and see for yourself… but be forewarned… it will leave you very, very hungry. Enjoy!
- one half pound baby portabella mushrooms
- one half pound shitake mushrooms
- two large leeks, approximately three cups sliced
- two tbs unsalted butter
- two tbs olive oil
- one quarter tsp kosher salt
- one eighth tsp freshly ground black pepper
- two and one half cups whole milk
- one bay leaf
- four sprigs fresh thyme
- three cloves garlic, sliced in half
- pinch nutmeg
- four tbs unsalted butter
- four tbs all purpose flour
- one pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated
- one half pound havarti cheese, grated
- pinch kosher salt
- pinch freshly ground black pepper
- one pound cavatapi pasta
- one half cup panko breadcrumbs
- one quarter tsp dried red pepper flakes
- one quarter cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 400 and set a large pot of water on the stove to boil.
Using a clean, dry dishtowel, gently wipe off the tops of the mushrooms and remove the stems. Slice long into quarter-inch pieces.
Moving to the leeks, chop off the root end of both leeks as well as the dark green ends. These are too woody to use. Slice the leek in half, lengthwise, and rinse under cold water thoroughly, ensuring that all of the sand in between the folds is removed. Chop the leeks into thin slices and set aside.
Pour the milk into a small sauce pan and set over medium-low heat. Add the garlic, nutmeg, thyme and bay leaf and stir. Allow to steep slowly, stirring occasionally to make sure the milk doesn’t burn.
Warm your largest sauté pan over medium heat and add two tbs of unsalted butter and two tbs of olive oil. Once the butter has melted add the leeks and mushrooms along with a quarter tsp kosher salt and a pinch of freshly ground black pepper. Allow the vegetables to sweat and cook down, lowering the heat to ensure they do not burn, for 15-20 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
At this point your pot of water should be boiling vigorously. Add a palmful of salt to the water and then pour in the pasta. Stir and let boil for five to six minutes, just short of the total cook time noted on the packaging. The pasta will continue to cook in the stove so you want to leave the texture just shy of al dente. When the pasta is ready, drain and set aside in a large bowl. Cover with a clean dishtowel.
While the pasta is cooking we will make the roux, the base of just about every classic macaroni and cheese. Melt four tbs of unsalted butter in a medium pot. Once melted, add four tbs all-purpose flour and whisk together quickly for two minutes, blending so that there aren’t any lumps and allowing the raw flour taste to cook off. Once the mixture is silky and golden, slowly whisk in the warm milk, making sure to discard the herbs and garlic first. I generally add my milk in two additions. Stir the milk constantly over medium-low heat for six to eight minutes, scrapping the bottom of the pot to make sure clumps don’t form and that the sauce remains smooth. Once the milk has thickened (test it using a wooden spoon – if it coats the back then it is ready) add the cheese – one and one half pounds grated sharp cheddar and one half pound grated havarti. Havarti is a very creamy cheese and can be a challenge to grate. I let my havarti (or any creamy cheese for that matter) chill in the freezer for five to ten minutes prior to grating. It will harden up just enough and will be much easier to slice and grate. Whisk the cheese into the thickened milk, keeping the heat low. Once melted (it will not be completely smooth), turn off the heat and set aside. Season to taste with kosher salt and freshly grated black pepper.
Add the mushrooms and leeks to the bowl with the pasta. Pour the sauce over the vegetables and mix well until all of the pasta is coated with the sauce. Transfer the pasta into a buttered baking dish and top with the breadcrumbs, red pepper flakes and parmesan cheese. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes until browned and bubbly. Allow to sit for five minutes before serving.