I've always thought macaroni and cheese's 20% crunch to 80% soft ratio was all wrong. The ratio should be more like 50:50. The soft part, delicious though it may be, wears you out. You need lots of crisp bits to stay interested in the dish.
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In an effort to realign macaroni and cheese, I brought together three concepts: a baked pasta technique from Cucina Simpatica, a potato gratin method from Jeffrey Steingarten, Vogue's food columnist, and a similar method used by Melissa Clark for kugel. In Cucina Simpatica, pasta is par-cooked, then combined with cream, cheese and other seasonings and baked at 500 degrees. The high temperature finishes the pasta quickly and toasts the tips on the top layer -- a memorable detail. Steingarten's gratin involves roasting thinly sliced potatoes and cream on a baking sheet so that the entire gratin is crisp and handsomely browned. And Melissa Clark spreads her kugel in a baking sheet achieving a predominantly crunchy texture.
Back in the macaroni and cheese lab, I combined these three ideas by par-cooking the pasta, folding it together with cream and a few cheeses, spreading it on a baking sheet, and finishing it in a 500-degree oven.
The result was total success -- the muffin top of mac 'n cheese! Major world issue solved, at last.
A few cooking notes: this is on the creamy side, so if you want it cheesier....add more cheese! And add whatever kind you like. I used fontina and asiago because I happened to drop by Buon Italia this week, but since those cheeses are not as easy to find, I might do cheddar next time. You can also add some diced ham, crushed tomatoes or any seasoning, really. I just kept this one simple to focus on the technique.
UPDATE: I've retested this with a new cream-less recipe and think you'll like the results. See the recipe at the end of the post.
ROUND ONE: Baking Sheet Macaroni and Cheese
1 1/4 pounds pasta spirals (or small shells or fusilli)
3 cups heavy cream
1 cup grated fontina
1 1/2 cups grated asiago
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1. Heat the oven to 500 degrees. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for 6 minutes. Drain.
2. Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, combine the cream, fontina and asiago. Season generously with pepper. Add the pasta and stir to combine. Spread the mixture in a 11x17 rimmed baking sheet, shaking the pan to fill it evenly. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese. Bake until browned on top and crisp, about 15 minutes.
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).
Before starting Food52 with Merrill, I was a food writer and editor at the New York Times. I've written several books, including "Cooking for Mr. Latte" and "The Essential New York Times Cookbook." I played myself in "Julie & Julia" -- hope you didn't blink, or you may have missed the scene! I live in Brooklyn with my husband, Tad, and twins, Walker and Addison.