Hi there! Just FYI – I have published an updated (easier and tastier!) version of this recipe on my new blog – TheWildOlive.org.
Click Here for the updated recipe, plus a handy printable copy.
I was spoiled as a child. My mom made homemade mac & cheese and taught me how to make it. Still my favorite comfort food, and no box, blue or otherwise, can ever compare to homemade. Regular cheddar mac & cheese is a classic that is always great, but sometimes you want to mix it up a bit. Depending on my mood I use different cheeses, add things like tomatoes, chiles, ham, herbs, whatever I’m looking to use up.
When I got the idea to save our homegrown tomatoes by slicing and roasting them, I started thinking of ways to use those intensely flavored, sweet, roasty gems. We love sliced fresh or canned chopped tomatoes in our cheddar mac & cheese, so I figured roasted heirlooms would also be good. And then I thought, “the herb garden is exploding with goodies and oh, yeah! I have a tupper of mixed Italian cheeses in the fridge!” How do you say “voila” in Italian? I made my usual cheese sauce (Mornay sauce for you fancy types) with the Italian cheeses (the mix I had contained Romano, Fontina and Provalone). Y’all, this was stupid good!!! Here’s the deets, and as always, enjoy!
- 1 cup panko bread crumbs
- 2 Tbsp butter or ghee
- ¼ tsp. kosher salt
- 8 oz dry pasta – use a fun shape that will really hang onto the sauce, such as gemelli, campanelle or cellentani
- 3 additional Tbsp. butter
- 3 generous Tbsp. flour
- 1 ½ cups whole milk, warmed
- 3 cups loosely packed Italian Cheese blend – DIVIDED – use a blend that has at least 2/3 “melty” cheeses like Provolone, Fontiana, etc. not just parm or pecorino, which don’t melt well)
- ½ tsp. sodium citrate* (optional, see note below)
- salt & pepper to taste
- 1 cup roasted tomatoes
- 4 sprigs fresh oregano
- 6-7 large fresh basil leaves, torn in thirds
In a 10 inch non-stick skillet melt 2 Tbsp. butter or ghee. Add panko crumbs, and stir over medium heat until toasted. Do not walk away – they go from delicious to ruined in a flash! Sprinkle kosher salt over toasted crumbs and combine. Remove from heat and let crumbs cool. [note: these crumbs are great for topping casseroles or adding wonderful crunch to skillet pasta dishes. Sometimes I make a big batch and store them in the fridge for up to a month. Let’s get real – sometimes I just grab a spoonful and eat them!]
In a large pot, bring 3 quarts of water and 1 Tbsp kosher salt to a boil. In a 3 qt sauce pan or saucier melt butter. Whisk in flour and cook until lightly browned (2-3 mins on medium heat). Whisk in warmed milk. Keep whisking till all lumps are gone. Whisk in the sodium citrate, if using. Bring sauce to boil, whisking occasionally. Reduce heat and gently boil sauce, whisking occasionally, for several minutes to cook the flour. Meanwhile, add the pasta to the boiling water. Turn off the heat under the sauce and add TWO cups of the Italian cheese blend. Gently stir till cheese is melted. Add salt and pepper to taste, cover the pan and let the sauce cool while the pasta cooks.
Cook pasta according to package directions. Be sure to cook the pasta past al dente. If you don’t cook the pasta enough, it will absorb too much of your sauce and make your mac & cheese dry.
Using a slotted spoon or spider scoop the cooked pasta out of its cooking water and into the pan with the cheese sauce. If your sauce is very thick, be sure to let some of the pasta water come with the pasta to thin your sauce, or add a bit more milk. If your cheese sauce is too thin, then dump the pasta into a strainer to drain off all the water before adding the pasta to the sauce. You want the sauce a bit on the thin side as the pasta will absorb some of the liquid as the casserole bakes.
Pour the pasta mixture into a greased 2-3 qt. covered baking dish. If you don’t have a covered baking dish, you can spray aluminum foil with non stick spray to keep it from making off with your crumb topping. Carefully tuck the bits of herbs and roasted tomatoes throughout the sauced pasta. Don’t stir the tomatoes into the pasta mixture because they will turn your sauce a VERY unappetizing shade of, well, barf color.
Sprinkle the top of the casserole with the remaining 1 cup of cheese, then top evenly with the panko crumbs.
Bake covered at 350 for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake another 10 minutes or so, until sauce is bubbling around the edges. Let cool a few minutes to make serving easier. To reheat leftovers, put 1-2 Tbsp. milk in a bowl, add a serving of mac and cheese and microwave on medium power till heated thru. The milk helps loosen up the sauce, and the lower power helps the sauce stay clump-free.
*Sodium Citrate note: Speaking of clumpy cheese sauce, sodium citrate is a safe, naturally occurring salt that is found in citrus fruits. It’s kind of the hot new thing in “gastronomy”. Sodium Citrate acts as an emulsifier, and in the case of cheese sauces it keeps the proteins in the cheese from clumping together when heated. Thus, it gives you a much smoother cheese sauce that is less likely to clump, even when reheated as leftovers. I bought mine at Amazon. I am planning a post on how I use Sodium Citrate and my other favorite citric wunderkind, Citric Acid, so stay tuned.