It’s hard to go wrong with macaroni and cheese. A comfort food staple, its cheesy goodness is enjoyed by kids and adults alike, for lunch, dinner, or a late-night snack. Even the blue box variety can hit the spot in the blink of an eye. But to really take it to the next level, you really should go all out with a rich, homemade cheese sauce.
This recipe gets a stylish update with the addition of fennel, an aromatic vegetable with a licorice flavor and a crunch reminiscent of celery. It’s braised quickly in Marsala wine, which makes it sweet, and the leftover cooking liquid is then used to make the creamy mascarpone and Swiss cheese sauce instead of the traditional cheddar. The diced ham steak makes the dish even more hearty.
The original recipe calls for making the mac and cheese in a buttered casserole dish, but I made it unique by combining everything in the 12-inch cast iron skillet used to make the cheese sauce. I also used grated Swiss instead of the recommended grated Gruyere.
Don’t skimp on the panko-parmesan topping: it adds a delicious crunch.
Campanelle gratin with ham and braised fennel
For the fennel
6 cups of water
4 small fennel bulbs, sliced
1/4 cup mild Marsala
2 fresh bay leaves
1 tablespoon kosher salt
For the sauce
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups braised fennel cooking liquid
1 container of mascarpone (8 ounces)
1 cup grated Swiss cheese
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon kosher salt
8 ounces dried campanelle pasta
6 ounces ham steak, cut into 1/2 inch dice
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Prepare the fennel: Place the water, fennel, marsala, bay leaves, and salt in a 4-quart saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until fennel is tender, about 15 minutes. Strain, reserving 2 cups of cooking liquid. Reserve the braised fennel.
In a large cast iron skillet, prepare the sauce. Melt the butter in a skillet over medium-low heat. Add flour and stir until fragrant and golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Gradually stir in reserved fennel liquid. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook until thickened, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add mascarpone, swiss cheese, salt and pepper, then stir to incorporate. Keep warm while you prepare the pasta.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bring a large pot of water seasoned with 1 tablespoon salt to a boil. Add pasta and cook only partially for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally (cooking will continue in the oven). Drain the pasta.
Toss the pasta with the braised fennel and ham in the skillet with the cheese sauce. Stir to combine well, making sure all the pasta is coated in the sauce. Cover with panko and parmesan, then drizzle with oil. Bake until top is golden brown and pasta is bubbly, about 35 to 40 minutes
Serve hot. For 6 persons.
Adapted from “Lush Life: Food & Drinks From the Garden” by Valerie Rice (Prospect Park, $35)