In the wintertime, when the living is sometimes not so easy, mac & cheese is hands down one of my favorite comfort foods. I don’t cook it often though, since I’ve noticed that I can easily scoff down half a baking dish on my own. Easily. Over the years, I ‘ve tried many variations- some successful, others not at all.
This one is my favorite: there’s small elbow pasta and soft, sauteed leeks- you need these to add sweetness and a tiny pop of colour. And then, there’s the sauce, the best part of the dish, what makes everything come together: start by making a simple roux with butter and flour, cooked together until smelling nutty and delicious and add your cheese- I ‘ve used gorgonzola (but any other creamy blue cheese will do) and some parmesan. Add a dash of cayenne pepper for some heat and freshly grated nutmeg- some extra sweetness to cut through the saltiness of the cheese.
On top of everything, instead of breadcrumbs, there’s homemade crunchy croutons. We’re trying to beat the cold weather and the winter blues, so we need all the yumminess we can get. Scatter these crunchy, golden brown, delicious bits on top of your pasta, along with some freshly ground black pepper and pop in the oven until bubbly, crispy and amazing. Mission accomplished, winter blues are gone.
500 gr elbow pasta (or any other small pasta variety)
2 medium leeks, thinly sliced
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
for the cheese sauce:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 cup gorgonzola cheese
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1 1/2 cups full fat milk
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
salt and freshly ground black pepper
for the croutons: 1 cup small cubes of bread, toasted and lightly seasoned with some sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Turn the oven on to 180 C.
Make the croutons: cut the crust of about 10 slices of sandwich bread into small cubes, toss with some sea salt and black pepper and bake until crunchy and golden brown- about 10 minutes. Set aside.
Lower the heat 10 175C.
Heat the olive oil in a pan and cook the leeks over medium heat until soft- about 7 minutes. Set aside.
Make the cheese sauce: in a large sauce pan, melt the butter over medium heat; add the flour and cook until incorporated, whisking constantly.
Add the milk and cook until thickened, about 5 minutes. Add the cheeses and stir to combine. Cook until the sauce comes together and thickens, about 5-7 minutes. Lastly, add the cayenne and nutmeg. Set aside.
Add the pasta to some boiling, salted water-be generous with your salt here (I read somewhere that water for pasta has to taste like the ocean- I love this description!). Cook until al dente, drain thoroughly and combine with the cooked leeks. Add to the sauce, and stir well, coating every piece of pasta.
Bake for 20 minutes, until bubbly and golden brown. And amazing.