I grew up on both homemade mac and cheese and the box stuff. When it came to the box stuff my brother and I would eat it out of the pot together sitting on the floor; when we had the fancy cartoon shaped pasta we’d share it as evenly as possible. You take three noodles, I take three noodles, we’d share like that back and forth until the end of the pot and lick it clean with our fingers. But my mom’s homemade mac and cheese was way better, creamy, thick and with lots of sauce to envelope the wagon wheel pasta she preferred to use.
Classic mac and cheese with sharp orange cheddar cheese has its place, all mac and cheese is great but it is also a convenient canvas to try out new flavors and additions. Sometimes it’s a matter of what cheese I have on hand and it’ll end up being a 6 cheese wonder or I’ll craft the dish based around another dish like hot wings. This time around I’m taking inspiration from a favorite pizza that focuses on the cheese and no additional vegetables or meat. The pizza starts with a tomato base sprinkled with parmesan, torn pieces of fresh mozzarella, dotted with spoonful of ricotta and dusted with Italian seasonings. It’s a simple thing but I think of it as a classy cheese pizza and that dusting of Italian seasoning really makes it spark.
This cheese sauce is creamy, lightly perfumed with Italian seasoning, bites of chili flakes and the occasional floral hint from the crushed fennel seeds. The casserole is topped with crisp panko bread crumbs tossed in butter and lemon zest, you could also add herbs to the topping or some pesto for color.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, in the meantime make the cheese sauce.
In a saucepan melt the butter, add the chopped garlic and then the flour, whisk everything together. Cook for a few minutes until the flour starts to change color become a pale golden brown.
Add the milk slowly whisking constantly, cook the milk mixture until it thickens and is streaming, stir occasionally to prevent the bottom from scorching.
Add in the cheese, seasoning, spices, everything except the pasta.
Cook the pasta until it is al dente, you want there to be enough of a bite that the pasta won’t turn to mush after you’ve baked the casserole. Drain the pasta and run cold water over it to stop the cooking process.
Mix the pasta and the cheese sauce together, taste and adjust the seasoning. It may look like a lot of sauce, but the pasta will absorb some of the liquid as it bakes.
Pour the pasta and cheese mixture into a 9x13” baking dish.
Bread crumb topping
Combine all of the ingredients for the topping and sprinkle evenly over the top of the pasta, make sure to spread it out to the edges of the pan.
Bake at 375F for 30-45 minutes until the bread crumbs are golden brown and there is bubbling around the edges.
I’m a tall ship cook, I prefer to cook with water beneath me, no land in sight and lots of mouths to feed. I like to play with bold flavors, pushing people’s taste buds in new directions and using a recipe as a guideline, my hands are my measuring spoons. Read More about “About Me”…