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.
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. 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.
ROUND TWO: Baking Sheet Macaroni and Cheese
Here I've used Julia Moskin's recipe for Crusty Macaroni and Cheese and applied my cooking method to it.
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