Recipe: Baked Macaroni with Fontina and Montasio
The baked mac and cheese fad that’s been winding its way through Manhattan and Brooklyn restaurants for the last ten years or so shows no sign of slowing down. I really resented this trend when it first appeared, thinking it trashy (what a sin) or, as it evolved, ridiculously highbrow, with some upscale restaurants charging big for a gooey pile of cheap cheese. Today if you’re a low-end or high-end bistro-type place, you’ve got to have a giant locavore burger, and you’ve got to have mac and cheese. The versions that upset me most are the five-cheese one (how could any palate discern five distinct cheeses when melted into one big glue ball—that’s just a waste of cheese, in my opinion), or the all-time most sickening, the mac and cheese drizzled with that terrible chemical potion known as truffle oil. The smell of that stuff floating in the air in any restaurant gives me a gag response. It should be outlawed.
Now that I’ve given you my haughty and maybe slightly stupid assessment of this food trend, wouldn’t you know it that the other night I’d find myself craving the dish. It was a very cold night, and the aroma of hot melted cheese was what I wanted in my kitchen and in my mouth. But, as you would guess, it was going to have to be a very Italian mac and cheese, and one with the utmost integrity, because I am a food snob of the highest order. Fontina Valle d’Aosta, made from the milk of cows that roam the Italian Alps, is the ultimate velvety melting cheese, a cheese that when heated releases a gorgeous mix of sweet and stinky aromas. I knew it would be my starting point, so I went out and found myself a really good hunk. Despite my issues with combining cheeses for no effect, I did feel there needed to be a counterpoint to the fontina, a slightly stronger grating cheese that would balance out all the fontina’s richness. Parmigiano Reggiano would have been a good choice, as would grana Padano, but I went with an aged Montasio, a cow’s milk cheese from Friuli that’s assertive but still contains sweetness. You might want to avoid really sharp pecorinos or aged provolone. Both in my opinion are too sour. Their tastes would throw this mellow, rich dish into the low-class food department. I’m also not crazy about including gorgonzola, as much as I love that cheese. I’ve tried it, and not only does it make the dish quite pungent, it also adds a slight soapy taste, for some reason.
So here’s my Italian mac and cheese. I’m pretty happy with it. It’s a great thing to make after a day trudging around the freezing, dirty city, exhausted from expending a lot of energy getting nothing accomplished. It’s very easy to make—you just throw the cheeses into a food processor. I’ve glammed it up with fresh thyme, a dollop of crème fraîche, and a pinch of allspice. Cook it quickly in a hot oven for the best result, a rather loose inside with a crisp browned top. Try it with a green salad that includes a bitter element such as escarole or radicchio. I hope it makes you happy.
Baked Macaroni with Fontina and Montasio
(Serves 5 or 6)
1 pound cavatappi or fusilli pasta (or, my favorite shape for this, cellentani, a mini cavatappi made by Barilla)
A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus a bit more for the baking dish
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 quart whole milk
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1 fresh bay leaf
A big pinch of hot paprika
1 garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed
A few large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped, plus a little extra for garnish
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
1½ cups grated fontina Valle d’Aosta cheese
1 cup grated aged Montasio cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup dry breadcrumbs
Boil the pasta of your choice in well-salted water until al dente. Drain it, pour it into a bowl, and toss it with a drizzle of olive oil.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Melt the butter and flour in a saucepan. Whisk until it’s smooth and the raw flour smell is gone, about 3 minutes. Add the milk, whisking all the time. Add salt, allspice, the bay leaf, the hot paprika, the garlic, and the thyme. Whisk until it just comes to a boil and is smooth and thick, about 4 minutes or so. Remove the bay leaf, and try to smash up the garlic in the sauce. Pull the pan from the heat, and add the crème fraîche, the fontina, ¾ cup of the Montasio, and some freshly ground black pepper, and whisk until smooth. Taste to see if it needs more salt.
Butter a large gratin dish or casserole (wider and shallower is better than deep for optimum crust and quick cooking). Pour about ¾ of the sauce on the pasta, and toss. Add the pasta to the gratin dish. Pour the rest of the sauce on top. Mix the breadcrumbs with the remaining Montasio, adding a bit of salt and black pepper. Sprinkle over the top.
Bake, uncovered, until browned and bubbly, about 15 minutes or so. Garnish with the rest of the thyme leaves. Serve right away.