Decadent Delight

Once in a while, we all deserve to indulge a little. You know you want to. I reserve this rich and luscious casserole for special occasions, particularly when little kids are involved--it's a good excuse. Definitely not on any weight-conscious diet, but worth every calorie. If you're going to go to the trouble of making mac & cheese from scratch, do it with decadence. This ain't no velveeta and elbow macaroni.            A proper bechamel is in order, incorporating a contrasting blend of melting cheeses, a novel shape of pasta, and finally finished with a crusty topping of fresh country bread croutons. I have perfectly paired this oozing, savory casserole with my Heirloom Tomato Salad, making best use of the last of the season's jewels. So treat yourself. Dig in with abandon and don't worry. You can do an extra lap around the park tomorrow.

Crusty Macaroni & Cheese

This quintessential recipe from Martha Stewart is one that I started using about 10 years ago. A couple of kids I know would happily tell you it's the best they've ever tasted. I like her concept of using bread crumbs on top of the casserole--it adds a layer of crunchy texture to the dish. Martha uses a blend of 2 cheeses and her combination certainly works, but you can vary the variety here. French Gruyere has the perfect nutty, melty ooze, while sharp cheddar (with the emphasis on sharp) lends a tang and bite to the sauce. However, feel free to experiment: mildy, melty fontina, parmesan or romano with an extra bite, and even creamy gorgonzola would each lend their own special character.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 3 quart casserole dish and set aside. As I always say, your dish is only as good as the quality of the ingredients that you put into it. Get a good quality country bread, cut 5 or 6 thick slices, and remove the crust. Cut the slices into 1/2 inch cubes. Toss in a bowl with 2 tablespoons melted butter.

In a 2 quart saucepan, heat 5 1/2 cups milk over medium low heat. I use whole milk, but you could substitute 2%, if you're so inclined. Be careful not to boil.

Make a roux. In a large skillet (preferably 6 quart), over medium heat, melt 6 tablespoons of unsalted butter. When butter foam subsides, add 1/2 cup flour and whisk to incorporate for 1 minute. Continue whisking while you slowly pour in hot milk. Cook for several minutes, whisking constantly, until roux bubbles and becomes thick. Remove from heat and stir in kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, freshly grated nutmeg, and a bit of cayenne pepper.

Stir in 3 cups grated cheddar cheese and 1 1/2 cups grated gruyere and set sauce aside.

You could use elbow macaroni in this dish, but why be predictable? I prefer a squiggly variety called celentani, which has great shape and holds the sauce well. Bring a large pasta pot 2/3 filled with salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta 2 or 3 minutes less than suggested on the box so that it's seriously al dente. Drain and rinse macaroni with cold water. Add to the cheese sauce in the skillet and toss well. Pour all into the buttered casserole.

Sprinkle remaining 1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese and 1/2 cup gruyere over casserole. Top with buttered bread cubes and bake until golden brown, turning once, about 30 minutes. Remove to a cooling rack and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Adapted from Martha Stewart
Serves 8:

1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter,
plus more for buttering dish
5 to 6 thick slices of country bread
5 1/2 cups milk, preferably whole
1/2 cup all purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 1/2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 cups grated gruyere
1 pound celentani macaroni

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