Those of you who know me know that cooking isn’t one of my gifts. Not that I don’t like to cook. I actually love to cook. But with a nearly empty nest, I don’t have a lot of mouths to cook for. Recently, one of my dear friends (talkin’ ’bout you, brilliant and beautiful Melinda Stiefel!) had the very thoughtful idea of hosting a dinner honoring Anthony Bourdain. Everyone, including some really amazing cooks (one professional, Le Cordon Bleu London graduate…no pressure), prepared one or more of Anthony’s recipes. My go-to would have been a dessert, because… chocolate. This was the point at which I learned one of Bourdain’s famous sayings: “F@ck dessert!” Geez. So, I went for the next best thing: his macaroni and cheese. Y’all. This stuff is the bomb diggity. At first, the recipe insulted my Southernness since it involved no egg or big globs of sharp cheddar. But, I figured Anthony being Anthony, he probably knew what he was talking about. Boy, howdy. I admit the picture doesn’t look like much, but this stuff is deadly yummy, courtesy of four different cheeses and a rich base of béchamel. Unless you just like to light your mouth on fire, I’d recommend halving the cayenne pepper. Maybe Anthony doused the flame with Negroni, a treat we discovered that night. Next time you want to wow a crowd, pull out this baby.
1 pound dry elbow macaroni
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4½ cups whole milk
2 teaspoons mustard powder
2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
8 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
4 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated
5 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated
3 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cubed
4 ounces cooked and thinly sliced ham, julienned (optional)
2 teaspoons salt, or more to taste freshly ground white pepper to taste (optional)
Preheat the oven to 375˚ F.
In a large, heavy-bottom pot, bring salted water to a boil and add the elbow macaroni. Cook according to the package instructions until just al dente, then drain and set aside.
Make sure you have both a whisk and a wooden spoon nearby, and something to rest them on. You will be switching back and forth between the two utensils as you first make a roux and then build on that to make a béchamel.
In the still-hot macaroni pot, heat the butter over medium-high heat until it foams and subsides. Whisk in the flour, then switch to a wooden spoon and stir steadily over medium-high heat until the mixture begins to turn a nutty golden brown, about 2 minutes. Do not let the mixture scorch. Whisk in the milk and bring the mixture just to a boil, stirring with the wooden spoon and making sure to scrape each part of the surface of the pan so that hunks of flour or milk do not stick. Reduce to a simmer and continue to cook and stir until the mixture is slightly thicker than heavy cream.
Whisk in the mustard powder, cayenne, and Worcestershire, then add half the Parmigiano-Reggiano (you’ll sprinkle the rest over the top) and the rest of the cheeses and, if using, the ham, and stir until the cheeses have melted completely. Stir in the cooked macaroni and mix well. Remove from the heat and stir in the salt and optional pepper.
Transfer the mixture to a glass or ceramic casserole, top with the remaining Parmigiano, and bake in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until the top is golden brown and the mixture is bubbling slightly.