Ah, mac and cheese. Is anything more primal and satisfying in winter? It’s easy and it’s cheap, and once you make this one you’ll never go back to store-bought again. It’s that good.
Put a big pasta pot of water on to boil. I had a ham so I cut a steak from it and cut lardons, little logs of salty pork to stud the pasta.
Commercial ham is about 4% water these days, so fry the lardons a bit in a touch of olive oil to crisp them up.
Black pepper’s never wrong but this won’t need added salt. The cheese and ham are salty enough.
A touch of onion is nice; these are shallots, softer and sweeter than an onion.
Drop them in to soften them up.
Keep things moving so nothing burns, the idea is to cook off the moisture and add a crisp edge to the ham.
Water boiling? Here we go!
Now make a classic bechamel sauce, gently heat about a quart of milk...
Grate your cheese, this is a great time to use up all the little cheese ends collecting in your crisper. For a pound of pasta--I’m using penne rigate--you’ll need about three or four cups grated. I’m using pepper jack and some old brie for the top crust.
Now melt four tablespoons of butter, add two heaping tablespoons of flour before it burns and whisk it about, the classic French “roux.”
Keep whisking, when it bubbles and colors up a bit, dump in the hot milk and stir it madly to ease the sizzle and create a smooth white sauce. Now add about ⅔’s of the cheese, stirring and melting as you go.
I think a touch of fresh grated nutmeg is essential, as well as lots more pepper. It dissipates in the sauce.
Cook the pasta only to al dente for it will soften further in the oven. Add the ham and shallots...
Pour in the sauce, blend it together and turn it out into a buttered baking dish.
Now sprinkle with wheatgerm and the remaining cheese for a top crust. Oh boy, we’re getting somewhere now.
Bake at 325-350 on a cookie sheet for about 40 minutes covered in foil, then take the foil off for the last 20 minutes to crisp the top. I sauteed some crimini mushrooms in the meantime.
And here we are, bubbling hot, redolent of brie and shallots, all you need is a crisp, ice cold Loire Valley white.
And some salad. Eat your greens! :-)