When I think about southern food, one of the first side dishes I associate with it is macaroni and cheese. With much of my family being from Charleston, West Virginia, I recall all of the family reunions, barbecues and holiday celebrations and the trays of mac and cheese that appeared at every gathering. If there is a dish that feels like “home” to me, it is this one.
So many families have their own recipes. I have at least a half dozen myself — each designed to cater to a different occasion. When I was pondering the menu for this past weekend’s Southern Feast, I knew I wanted to go old school. I wanted to produce a mac and cheese dish that would bring me back to what I grew up eating while incorporating the growth I’ve made over the years in the kitchen.
My Cheese Lover’s Mac and Cheese is an ode to everything involved in this dish that I hold dear. There is cheese — lots of cheese. And then there is more cheese. Using an assortment of cheddar mixed with a tangy manchego in a creamy béchamel gives the base complexity without losing its familiarity. The addition of even more cheddar along with mozzarella provides another layer of flavor and a visible decadence that must be seen to believe.
For your next southern-themed gathering (which I suggest you have ASAP if you really need an official reason to make this), check out my recipe. It is a dish that can be constructed hours ahead of time and baked before your guests arrive. My one solid recommendation: have extra tupperware on hand. Your guests WILL want whatever you can spare from your leftovers!
Cheese Lover’s Mac and Cheese
(recipe serving size – 12-16 people)
1 1/2 boxes cavatappi
4 tb butter
3 tb all purpose flour
1 qt half and half plus 1 cup (5 1/2 cups)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tb fresh thyme, chopped
3 cups manchego cheese, grated
5 cups cheddar cheese, grated plus 16 oz cheddar, cubed
2 cup mozzarella cheese, grated plus 16 oz mozzarella, cubed
2 oz cream cheese
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
For the béchamel:
In a large pot over medium to medium-high heat, melt the butter and mix in the flour. Cook for about 1 minute, creating a roux that remains light in color. Add the half and half gradually, whisking vigorously to incorporate the half and half into the roux. Add the salt, pepper and fresh thyme. Cook until thickened (10-15 minutes), stirring occasionally to make sure the bottom does not burn.
Once thickened, add the grated manchego, 3 cups of the grated cheddar and the cream cheese. Stir until smooth.
For the pasta:
Boil the cavatappi in salted water until al dente. Drain the pasta thoroughly and divide into 2 corningware dishes (2 1/2 qt size) or one large baking pan. Add the béchamel to the pasta while the pasta is hot. Stir to make sure every noodle is coated. Fold in the cubes of cheddar and mozzarella, mixing them throughout the pasta. Sprinkle the last 2 cups of grated cheddar and the grated mozzarella cheese across the top.
For the baking:
Cover the pan(s) of macaroni and cheese with a fitted lid or aluminum foil and place the pans on the center rack of the preheated oven. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until hot all the way through and the cheese starts to bubble. Remove the lid or foil and bake for another 10-15 minutes. If the cheese does not brown, turn your oven to broil and watch closely.
Remove once the cheese has browned slightly on the top and let stand for 5 minutes.
Serve while warm.