There are a few things I make that I am really proud of—things that are fun and foolproof to make, taste great, and everyone loves. The Bolognese is always a favorite, I have a great recipe for Hummingbird Cake, and my mind-blowingly fast Serrano-Lime Chicken with Cilantro Sauce. When I made my Sage & Cider Brined Turkey with Perfect Gravy for a family Thanksgiving, my Aunt said that grandma would’ve been proud. But this recipe… This is a crowning achievement for me. This is my Citizen Kane.
I’ve made a lot of macaroni & cheeses over the years. Classic mac & cheese, Mexican chorizo mac & cheese, BBQ pulled pork, bacon and sage, cauliflower, one based on a classic Fondue, Carbonara mac & cheese, and so on. One of the commonalities between them all, aside from the obvious, is that they’re all baked. Most stovetop macaroni & cheese recipes have you folding cooked pasta into a Mornay sauce—essentially the same exact thing you would do for a baked mac & cheese, save the baking part. To me, the sauce of this is a little too thick to be eaten straight out of the pan, rather than baking—that is, aside from the few stolen bites before it’s poured into a casserole dish. The other common method is to make a sort of milk based-fondue sauce, stirring the cooked pasta in to coat. This is the opposite problem I have with the Mornay method—the pasta absorbs all the liquid, and you end up with cheese-flavored macaroni rather than something saucy. And then it hit me: pasta risottata.
Pasta risottata is nothing new. As you might guess, it means pasta that’s cooked in the vein of risotto. Essentially, you add the pasta to a warmed pan with a little fat, stir it to coat and gently warm the pasta a little, and then pour over hot water—just enough to barely cover the pasta—letting it simmer for its usual cooking time until it’s al dente. Unlike risotto, the water is added in all at once, and there’s no constant stirring required, although you should every few minutes just to make sure nothing is sticking. The pasta absorbs most of the water, and what minimal amount is left in the pan has a super high concentration of starch from the pasta—it’s a beautiful thing.
While the pasta is cooking you whisk together a little cream, some egg yolks, and shredded cheese until it’s all combined. Stir a little butter into the pasta once it’s ready, shut off the heat, and beat that cheesy mixture in until it gently melts, becoming a luscious and creamy sauce. The egg yolks cook gently in the heat of the pasta, giving this a smooth and velvety feel, and combined with the cream and starching pan liquid they’re the perfect vehicle for the cheese to melt into. I like to mix extra sharp white cheddar—something with a real sharpness and burn, like a New York or Vermont cheddar—with a sharp cheddar—maybe orange, something creamier, like a Wisconsin. If you’re feeding kids, you may want to lessen or eliminate the extra sharp stuff and replace with a milder cheddar—it’s all about your preference (although, even as a extra sharp cheddar junkie, using that alone was too one-noted for me). The pasta I typically use is ditallini or elbow macaroni, but this time around, when I went for the box of elbow in my cupboard I realized I was out somehow, so I went with cavatappi—worked perfectly!
To make a main course out of it I like to cook up some tiny little meatballs, and since the mac & cheese itself is pretty quick to make I take an express route with the meatballs, too—Italian turkey sausage. Just remove the casings, roll the meat into little balls, and fry—simple as that. You could certainly use pork sausage for the meatballs, and a good spicy one is very good in this, but if you’re making this for kids then turkey might be a little more palatable; and of course, you can use mild/sweet or hot per your preference. This part does admittedly take a little bit more time, having to roll the meatballs and fry them in batches, so if you’re pressed for time you could crisp some bacon or pancetta in the pan, brown some bulk Mexican chorizo, or just leave the protein out all together. Actually, my favorite addition next to the meatballs is those little mini pepperonis—say what you will, I don’t care; this isn’t haute cuisine here—and I gotta believe that a kid would love it, too.
It does need to be served right away because, like most mac and cheese, once it cools the sauce begins to solidify and soak more and more into the pasta. If the pasta is done cooking and everyone still needs a few more minutes before they make it to the table, just shut the heat off and cover the pan to keep it warm. Then, when everyone’s ready, put the heat back on low to warm it back up, maybe adding a splash of hot water to loosen it up again.
I promise, this will change the way you look at stovetop mac & cheese, if not mac & cheese all together! Kids that are an IV bag away from living off of the DayGlo orange stuff from the box will love this, and because of its fantastic flavor, us bigger kids will, too.
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|4 adults, or 6 children||10 minutes|
|15 - 20 minutes, more or less|
- 1 tablespoon olive oil or garlic-infused olive oil
- 10 - 12 ounces Italian turkey sausage bulk/casings removed (sweet, mild, hot per preference), See Note
- 12 ounces elbow macaroni ditalini, or cavattapi
- Approx. 4 - 5 cups hot water (just enough to barely cover the pasta)
- 2 egg yolks
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 6 ounces cheddar shredded (a mix of extra sharp and sharp, or per preference)
- 1 heaping tablespoon butter
- Scant 1 t-spoon kosher salt
- Roll the sausage meat into little meatballs or, to make it even faster, use a spring-loaded t-spoon scoop (about 35 meatballs total, depending on size). This is also the perfect opportunity for roping kids into a little cooking, plus it speeds it up a little and kids love playing with their food. You all win!
- In a large Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat until hot and add in the meatballs, cooking for a few minutes per side until they get a deep golden color. Toss them about in the pan periodically to brown them evenly.
- Once the meatballs are bronzed on all sides dump in the pasta and toss about to slick it in the oil. Pour in enough hot water to just barely cover the pasta, season with about half the salt and turn the heat to low. Its okay if the meatballs aren’t submerged – you just want the pasta to be barely covered in water. Simmer for about 7 – 8 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing sticks.
- In the meantime, in a small bowl whisk together the yolks, cream, cheese and remaining salt until it’s combined as it can get.
- Once the pasta’s time is up (it should be just a little shy of al dente), drop in the butter and stir to melt the butter into the pasta.
- Turn off the heat and plop in the egg-cream-cheese mixture and stir into the pasta immediately and quickly until it all melts into a smooth, silken sauce. Serve immediately.
- Chicken or pork sausage can be substituted