My M&C roots do not run deep. I can't remember my mom ever making it, though she says she did, and that she used to put green bell peppers in it—which might very well explain why I've blocked it out. My own efforts have all occurred in the last two or three years as I've tried to make it for my daughter, who had it somewhere outside the home and now asks for it every week (not that I make it for her that often).
I've never used a recipe, simply because I feel it should be such an easy dish to throw together, and as a result every pan of it I've made—I say "pan" because macaroni and cheese to my mind means baked—has suffered from (at least) two problems, both of which should have been a cinch to fix: not enough cheese, and not enough salt. Somehow I just never got it right. For this post I could, of course, have just gone with a classic no-white-sauce, extra-cheesy version similar to Julia Moskin's Creamy Macaroni and Cheese (1 pound cheese to 1/2 pound macaroni, plus pureed cottage cheese!), which actually looks similar to the surprisingly good stuff I very occasionally break down and get premade from the Ingles in Elberton (I know!). But that would satisfy only two of the people in my family.
You see, my husband despises macaroni and cheese (especially when it's referred to as "mac 'n [sic] cheese") Traditional macaroni and cheese is not comforting to him, it's bland. Its texture is not bouncy, it's soggy and unpleasant. So I set out to come up with a way to make a macaroni and cheese that would appeal to him as well as to my three-year-old and me. This is what I came up with. He loved it, and deemed it "award-winning." (No awards were involved; I did, however, receive a small "cheese stipend" for developing this recipe for the WMMB event—cheese stipend!) I hope you like it too.
Roasted Cauliflower Macaroni and Cheese with Caraway Havarti
Havarti with caraway seeds is one of my favorite basic snacking cheeses, but I'd never thought to actually cook with it before. Turns out it's a stellar melter, and its slight sharpness, along with the nutty caraway, are just wonderful in this context. The slabs of roasted cauliflower at the bottom of the casserole give the dish a welcome meaty texture: put this macaroni and cheese at the center of the plate, next to some sweet baby peas or a simple bitter greens and parsley salad, and pour plenty of red wine.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 head cauliflower
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound elbow macaroni
6 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, finely diced
4 tablespoons flour
3 cups milk
Pinch of cayenne
1 pound Wisconsin Havarti Cheese with Caraway, or plain havarti plus 2 teaspoons caraway
1/2 cup bread crumbs
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Drizzle half of the oil all over the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.
Trim the head of caulflower and use a big knife to slice it into 1/2-inch-thick slabs. Arrange the pieces in the baking pan to cover the bottom in a single layer. Drizzle with the remaining oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes, until tender and lightly browned. Remove from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees F.
Meanwhile, cook the macaroni in a large pot of boiling salted water until just barely tender; drain and set aside in a large bowl.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes.
Sprinkle in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until pale golden, about 3 minutes.
Whisk in the milk and cayenne. Whisking and stirring frequently, bring to a simmer; simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, until the sauce has thickened slightly.
Remove from the heat and gently stir in the cheese, stirring until melted. Season generously with salt—you'll need at least 2 teaspoons. Pour the sauce over the macaroni and stir to coat well, then dump the whole mixture over the roasted cauliflower in the baking dish.
Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and toss it with the bread crumbs. Sprinkle the crumbs over the macaroni and cheese, along with the Parmesan, if using.
Bake until very bubbly and browned on top, about 30 minutes. Let sit for 10 minutes to firm up before scooping out servings.