This whole dish, from putting the water on to boil until you pull it out of the oven, takes about 50 minutes. With the last 30 being totally hands off, house smelling of good things minutes. It's a cold winter's night dish, a party dish, a date night but I made this for the kids dish, the today was totally the worst dish. And maybe even the occasional hangover dish. It's sophisticated enough to serve with a bitter green salad and something bubbly and homey enough, well, for everyone.
Personally, I think the key to a good mac and cheese is the crunchy topping. The favorite flavor profile in my house is a smoky, slightly spicy topping. I have found a great spice mix from Savory Spice called Red Rocks Hickory Smoke Seasoning.
I have used a little ground chipolte and sweet paprika in the past but this one particular mix seems to hit all the right notes. As always, experiment with what you love. For my Princeton friends, the Momo's make a great focaccia spice mix (the same one they use at Teresa's in the dipping oil) which is sold at Witherspoon Bakery. Totally different but amazing, too.
mac and cheese
1 lb shaped macaroni (I love Cavatappi)
4 c + 1 c shredded aged cheddar (I love Tillamook)
4 T butter
1/4 c + 1 T flour
1 T dijon mustard
2 T + 1/2 t spice mix
2 T creme fraiche
3 cups 2% milk
1 1/4 c panko breadcrumbs
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400º
Start a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta until really really al dente. Drain and place in a casserole dish.
Add the milk, making sure to scrape all of the pan to get any pockets of roux that may be hiding on the bottom/side. Continue to cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Once your béchamel has thicken properly, add the mustard, season with salt and pepper, and all the creme fraiche.
Taste and check for seasonings, keeping in mind that the cheese has quite a bit of sodium. Add 1/2 of your spice mix and taste again.
Add 4 cups of the cheese and whisk until smooth over medium heat.
In a separate bowl, combine the panko, 1 cup of shredded cheese and remaining 2 T of spice mix.
Mix the cooked pasta with the cheese sauce and spread the panko/cheese topping over the dish.
Cook until browned and bubbling, about 30 minutes.