Sometimes a single ingredient can really lift a dish, and such is the case with this mac and cheese. I am an unabashed lover of cheese, and if I ever found out I was lactose intolerant, I would probably die. Or just eat through the pain. And as an off-shoot of my love of cheese, I am equally obsessed with noodle and cheese dishes. I still think my mother makes the best mac and cheese - she uses ziti noodles and a fantastically creamy cheddar that is nearly impossible to find, and tops the whole shebang with wheat germ for a nicely nutty crust.
This recipe comes from a delightful little shop in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, Talula's Table. The recipe ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and as my mother happened to be in Kennett one recent weekend, she stopped in to pick up the key ingredient in this mac and cheese - a subtley spicy pepperoncino penne pasta - and subsequently transported it to Boston for my pre-birthday festivities. The particular brand Talula's sells is Dalla Costa, but I am sure you could substitute another peppery noodle (but if you can get your hands on a bag, I recommend the Dalla Costa brand!)
And a little note - we skipped the garlic bread crumbs, and just sprinkled the top with the regular kind. The cheeses and pasta are quite flavorful and the garlic bread crumb addition seemed unnecessary. And if you wanted to veganize this, you could make this sauce, and use it with the peppery noodles!
Also, if you don't feel like buying loads of herbs that will languish in your refrigerator, Trader Joe's sells a "poultry mix" of fresh herbs that include the perfect amounts of parsley, oregano and thyme for this recipe!
Talula’s Slightly Spicy Macaroni and Cheese
5 cups milk
½ onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, smashed, skin left on
4 springs each parsley, oregano, thyme
2 to 3 fresh sage leaves
2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
½ lb peperoncino penne
2 cups aged white cheddar and Gruyere cheese mix (Cabot, Grafton, Roth Kase), grated
2/3 cup Parmesan, grated
1 cup garlic breadcrumbs
- Combine milk, onion, garlic and herb sprigs and leaves in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a simmer. Cook over medium heat for 15 minutes. Set aside to steep for 15 minutes. Pour through a strainer and return to the pan.
- Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk in the flour to make the roux, and cook over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Slowly whisk 2 cups of the seasoned milk into the roux to make a paste. Add the remaining milk, 1 cup at a time, until all the milk has been incorporated. Continue to cool, still whisking, over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes. The sauce will be just slightly thickened. Season with the Dijon, ¼ tsp salt and a pinch of pepper.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 2-quart baking dish.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt lightly. Drop in the penne and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain the penne and place in a large bowl. Pour the sauce over and toss in the cheeses, reserving a handful of Parmesan. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Pour the mixture into the baking dish, making sure to include all of the sauce. Sprinkle with the garlic bread crumbs and remaining Parmesan and bake until golden and bubbling, about 40 minutes.
- To make the bread crumbs, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Cut day-old bread into thin slices and place on a baking sheet; brush with garlic infused oil. Bake until golden and very crisp, about 15 minutes. Allow to cool. Break up the bread with your hands and pulse in a food processor, leaving the texture a little coarse.