By Nicholas May
With the winter solstice nearly a week away and the ever-present buzz of the holiday season lingering in the background, might I suggest some comfort food to soothe your soul? This recipe is a little complex with lots of bowls, saucepans and utensils, and the cleanup can be daunting, but there is nothing more comforting than pulling a piping hot casserole dish piled with bubbling cheesy pasta out of the oven.
1 package penne pasta (I prefer an organic brown rice version, but wheat pasta works)
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
8-10 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated—plus another 3 ounces cheddar for the topping (1 block)
8-10 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated
½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
Because there are so many moving parts to this recipe, I boil and drain the pasta first. It should be “al dente,” and I always boil my pasta in salted water for added flavor. While the pasta is boiling, I grate the cheese using an old-fashioned box grater. There’s something satisfying about having to work for a mound of shredded cheese. If you are pressed for time you can easily shred the cheese in a food processor.
Warm the milk in a saucepan. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan (I use a 4-quart Dutch oven) and whisk in the flour until smooth, about 1 minute. Gradually pour the warmed milk into the saucepan with the butter/flour mixture and whisk frequently until thickened, about 5 minutes. The white sauce (“bechamel”) should be smooth and creamy.
Combine the cheese and bechamel mixture in a bowl with salt and pepper. Fold in the pasta and transfer to a casserole dish —I use a ceramic baking dish. Sprinkle the reserved cheddar cheese on top, and bake the dish in a 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes, maybe a bit longer.
Extra credit: In a small skillet, toast some breadcrumbs and finely chopped sage leaves in some butter and scatter on top before baking.