I have more tips and ideas at the bottom of the post for now; When you pick the cheese think melty soft squishy cheese. If you pick cheese that is to dry the cheese sauce will be tacky and not saucy.
Labor of love, step 1
Pre heat the oven to 350C, and open the wine to let it breath.
I start by warming the milk and cream in a small sauce pot, being cautions not to scorch it, while infusing it with flavors. At a minimum I add the bay leaves, garlic and mustard as it is warming, but infusing the milk with the mushroom flavor is very subtle yet over the top. This takes a while so I like to start it first. If you don’t like the texture of mushrooms, no worry they don’t actually make it into the mac and cheese.
Labor of love, step 2
Salt the pasta water and cook the noodles al dente. When draining the pasta shake off as much water as possible and add it back to the still hot pot to help drive off as much of the water as possible. This will keep the final product from getting to watery. Add the diced ham and stir.
Labor of love, step 3
You can make the bread crumb mixture now or in the end, doesn’t really matter. Just toss the bread, Parmesan cheese and thyme in a blender or mini prep food processor, zip and done. Mix with melted butter. Too much fuss? Store bought bread crumbs, work fine…just get some decent cheese none of that shakey mess. Or skip it all together.
Labor of love, step 4+
Now it’s time for the foundation, the roux. If you have never made a roux there are tons of articles out there, be patient you will get the hang of it. It does need a lot of attention so I like to make it at the end when I can give it my full focus. Melt the butter on low med until its foamy and add the flour, mixing to form a paste. Continue to cook the roux until it’s that toasty brown color and nutty fragrance. Add the infused milk mixture, pouring through a strainer to remove the mushrooms and bay leaves. Stir constantly, I like to use a whisk, heating it gently until it begins to thicken so about 2 min or so on med low. Pull it off the heat and stir in the cheese.
Pour all this mess into the pot with the noodles and ham, stir. Then pour all of this glorious stuff into an oven safe dish, about 8 x 8 should do it, and top with bread crumbs. Bake it at 350C until it is bubbly around the edge and the crumbs are lightly brown, about 20 min.
I know this is a lot of steps but like I said – a labor of love. See below, after the ingredients, for a few extra tips and flavor ideas.
Cheese Sauce (infused milk and roux)
1 cup of 2% milk
1 cup of heavy cream
1 -2 teaspoons mustard
1 teaspoons garlic powder
big handful of sliced mushrooms
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoons flour
1.5 cup of shredded cheese (truth I have used up to 2 cups)
1/2 lb of dry pasta, pick something that will hold the cheese but not have to compete with the size of the ham, favorites are med shells and corks screws
8 oz of diced ham
salt for the water
Bread crumb top
2 slices of white bread, day old is best
1/3 cup of parm cheese
(thyme is really good too)
Those after the credits tid bits –
– Something I found to be helpful when making a roux; a white enamel pot takes the guess work out of the color.