cook the book: the family table's macaroni + cheese

About two months ago, we flew back east for the wedding of my husband’s best friend. Andrew (the groom) and Matt (my husband) have known each other since they were in kindergarten. If you ask anyone who knows these two guys well, they would all agree that when Matt and Andy are in the same room- or even on the phone- they kind channel each other. Not in a creepy sort of way, but in a way that is a testament to over three decades of friendship. And their friendship is something special; it's something truly unique. 

Matt and Andy both love music, art, and searching for off-the-grid food spots. They also love road trips, and every summer that we were living in Brooklyn (7 to be exact) they embarked on journeys that took them to places as obscure as Centralia, PA and Morgantown, West Virginia. There was also the summer when they departed for Toronto and changed their voicemail message to inform callers they would be "traveling out of the country" - as if heading a few hours north constituted a major international excursion. They spent time boating around Lake Placid, and in Vermont where it rained non-stop the summer they visited, the two of them camped out at the Ben & Jerry’s Factory Store- which happens to be the most popular tourist destination in the state. Let's just say these two have spent a lot of time together and they know each other well. And since I've been in a relationship with Matt since 2002 (yikes, that's 12 years already), I've grown to know Andy too…and I love him just like a brother.

When Matt and I were trying to make this move to Colorado work, Andy let Matt camp out in his apartment. Andy’s kitchen (affectionately dubbed the "K-Room") was where Matt slept on a futon mattress for 8 months as he commuted back-and-forth between Brooklyn (where he was still working as a public defender for Legal Aid) and Denver (where he was applying for jobs). Did I mention that he crashed with Andy for 8 months?! Not many relationships would survive that duration or inconvenience, but their friendship grew stronger.

Anyway, back to Andy’s wedding. He married one of the nicest people I've ever met and their celebration was beautiful. We laughed, we cried, we ate, we danced…and yes, we drank and made toasts well into the late hours of the night (and early morning). When we got back from the wedding I felt homesick. So did Matt. Not for New York City as a place- for my lifestyle doesn’t really jive with the city anymore and I hardly recognize it as the place of my childhood- but for the people, our closest friends. Our relationships that span decades

Back in my Colorado kitchen I decided to make comfort food... and I couldn't think of anything more appropriate than the Family Table's mac and cheese. The Family Table is one of my favorite cookbooks and it's a collection of staff meals from the chefs and sous chefs at Danny Meyer's various NYC restaurants. This pasta dish reminds me of home, good friends and lots of laughter…and I'll have a big pan of bubbly, cheesy goodness waiting for Andy and his new wife Carly when they come to visit us again in Colorado. And I can't wait…

Happy eating,

“The Dish You Love The Best” Macaroni & Cheese
10 – 12 servings

For the Sauce:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup thinly sliced shallots (3-4 medium)
3 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
2 fresh thyme sprigs
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups good quality vegetable stock (the book has a recipe for stock, but I went with store-bought)
3 cups heavy cream
3 cups coarsely grate sharp cheddar (about 1 pound)
1 1/4 cups grated Grana Padano (about 7 ounces)*
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Kosher salt

Butter for the pan
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 pound penne, fusilli, or other short pasta
3/4 cup panko bread crumbs or fine dried bread crumbs
1/3 cup grated Grana Padano*

* The first time I made this I was able to find Grana Padano cheese. The second time I made this dish I couldn’t find any, so I picked up a very good quality Parmesan from Cured in Boulder and it worked beautifully.

TO MAKE THE SAUCE: Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the shallots, garlic, 1 teaspoon pepper, and the thyme, and cook, stirring, until the shallots are translucent, about 5-7 minutes.

Slowly add the flour, stirring constantly, and cook for 5 minutes, so that the flour loses its raw taste. Add the stock (very slowly), stirring constantly, then increase the heat to medium and bring to a boil. (If you add the stock too quickly, the roux will break.) Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, so the flavors come together.

Add the cream, bring to a simmer, and cook until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, 7 to 10 minutes longer. Strain the sauce into a bowl.

Clean the saucepan, add the sauce, and return it to low heat. Add the cheeses and the mustard, stirring constantly. Once the cheese is completely melted, season to taste with salt and pepper and remove from heat. (You can make the sauce up to 1 day ahead, covered, and refrigerated. Bring it to room temperature and reheat slowly before using.)

TO ASSMEBLE AND BAKE: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 9-x-13-inch baking dish.

Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot and add the salt. Add the pasta to the boiling water, stir, and cook until just al dente. Drain well.

Combine the pasta with the sauce and pour it into a baking dish.

In a small bowl, combine the panko and the Grana Padano (or good quality Parmesan). Sprinkle it over the pasta. Bake until the top is golden brown and bubbling, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve (with a smile!).