Wow. Have your ever had a gastronomic moment when you know you're eating the best version of a particular dish? Eyes light up, noshing sounds commence and belly sighs exhale as fellow diners exclaim, "No THIS is the best!", "Oh my God!" and "Praise Mac & Mornay!" This happened recently and thank goodness I had my camera and notebook to document and jot down the ultimate mac and mornay recipe.
Why am I referring to this recipe as "Mac & Mornay" instead of "Mac & Cheese?" The word "mornay" simply means béchamel with shredded cheese added to it. Béchamel sauce is a simple preparation of a roux (flour and butter cooked down together) and milk. There are endless variations of béchamel–based sauces transforming dishes depending on how much or how little of other items you add to it.
When thinking of the ultimate macaroni and cheese recipe, I was enlightened by a chef friend to think of béchamel preparation for the sauce and adding shredded Raclette and Parmesan, yielding a flavorful mornay sauce, then including a few special details to elevate this dish into legendary tastiness.
For me, it's fascinating to cook alongside trained chefs, as they all emphasize simple, high quality ingredients, proper technique and an unabashed use of butter and salt. This mac and mornay demonstrates all of these principles, and it is a rich food, but you really don't need a lot to be satisfied. When eating mac and mornay, I believe in a smaller portion of the really good stuff rather than a bowl full of low fat and low flavor.
The expression 'the devil's in the details' is apparent in all the subtle moves of this recipe. There's a hint of rosemary, light dusting of nutmeg and torn fresh bread cubes to infuse the rich, comforting taste of pasta and cheese. And there's the cheese itself. James, my chef friend and former cheese monger recommends using a favorite, flavorful cheese cut with Parmesan for this recipe. He selected an Alpine–style goat cheese, Raclette, for our version (a current favorite cheese of mine), but you could use Gruèyere or even a strong white cheddar if you prefer. It's a multiple–step meal, but once you get the hang of the textures and techniques, it's really pretty simple. Surprise your kids and loved ones with a delectable meal, accompanied by just a simple salad and glass of chilled white wine. This dish heavenly.
For the Sauce Mornay
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup flour
3 1/2 cups milk
freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
black pepper (or white pepper if you don't like little black specks in your sauce)
3/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1 cup shredded Raclette (or other cheese you like)
For the Mac and Mornay Gratin
2 1/2 cups dried macaroni pasta
prepared mornay sauce
2 tablespoons butter
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 1/2 cups fresh baguette cut into 1–inch cubes
Preheat oven to 375 °. Cook pasta until just al–dente, strain and set aside. In a heavy-bottomed oven-proof pan (such as a Le Cruset), melt 4 tablespoons of butter on medium heat. Add the salt and flour, and gently saute for about 2-3 minutes (creating what's knows as a 'roux'). Whisk the roux, cooking it enough until it looses the floury smell and takes on a nutty, buttery aroma. The mixture will be stiff and cling to the whisk and the sides of the pan. Add the milk slowly while whisking. Bring to a simmer. Turn the heat to low and let sauce simmer for about 15 minutes.
After 15 minutes, add the cheeses, nutmeg and Dijon mustard, stirring with a wooden spoon until sauce ingredients are evenly incorporated. Cook for another 5 or so minutes, until cheese is fully melted.
Add the macaroni and stir to incorporate. The sauce will be a little loose, but the pasta will absorb much of it in the oven. In a small pan, melt the 2 tablespoons remainder of the butter and place the rosemary sprig in the center of the butter. Cook for another minute, infusing the butter with rosemary flavor. In a medium size bowl, toss the bread cubes and rosemary–flavored butter together.
Finally, pour buttered bread cubes on top of the coated pasta, patting down the bread cubes slightly. The top will be entirely covered in bread cubes. Place rosemary at center of cubes and bake for 20-30 minutes, until the dish is golden brown. Serve in its dish with a simple green salad and glass of wine.
(Images: Leela Cyd Ross)