Eight ingredients, plus pantry staples. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a feast for family or friends.
We could all use a bowl of mac and cheese right now. Melty baked pasta is a guaranteed mood booster, especially when it’s easy to pull together. A few details take this dish above your basic mac and cheese, but it’s still very simple, and highly adaptable if you’re missing an ingredient or two (or three).
As in my creamy farfalle with smoked salmon and peas, the foundation for the cheese sauce is a béchamel, a white sauce made by whisking milk into a roux (a thick paste consisting of butter and flour). Here you’ll use a higher ratio of béchamel to pasta for a rich, creamy dish that won’t dry out as it finishes in the oven.
Smoked gouda adds depth that plays off a savory backdrop of sautéed onions and the subtle spice of the jalapeño. I seeded my jalapeños to tame the heat, but leave the seeds in if you want to up the spice level. You could forgo those additions for a more classic rendition of mac and cheese, though I recommend using a combination of at least two cheeses, such as a sharper one and a milder one, each of which contribute something to the balance of the dish. I also recommend using cavatappi pasta. The corkscrew-shaped pieces aren’t just fun, they’re functional; the cheese sauce will cling to the grooves along the outside and the tube in the middle. If you can't find it, look for another pasta shape that’s curly, ridged, tubular or cupped to help catch the sauce.
Mac and cheese calls for a bright white wine to provide relief from the richness. Because this version contains jalapeño, I also looked for a wine with an herbal or vegetal quality in order to help tie everything together. Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon Margaret River from western Australia had that brightness in the form of crisp citrus and tropical fruit, as well as hints of herbs. I found the 2016 available for delivery, but it's similar in style to the 2018 vintage (88 points, $19), which even contains jalapeño in its tasting descriptors, and the 2015 vintage, with more of an emphasis on fresh herbs. As always, the wine was a great tool to add sophistication to a humble dinner.
Smoky Jalapeño Mac and Cheese
Pair with a crisp white wine with herbal or vegetal notes, such as Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon Margaret River 2016.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Approximate food costs: $25
- 16-ounce box of cavatappi or another curly or ridged pasta
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided, plus more for greasing
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
- 1/4 cup finely chopped and seeded jalapeño, or with seeds for more spice (about 3 small jalapeños)
- 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 cup shredded smoked gouda
- 1 cup shredded white cheddar
- 1 1/4 cups shredded yellow cheddar, divided
- Black pepper
1. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and preheat the oven to 350° F. In a large pot, bring 1 1/2 gallons of water to a boil with 1/2 tablespoon of salt. Add pasta and cook for 6 minutes or, if you’re using a different pasta shape, 2 minutes less than the package instructions. Drain.
2. While the pasta is cooking, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a small bowl and toss with breadcrumbs. Set aside.
3. Return pasta pot to medium-low heat and melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Add jalapeño and onion with a pinch of salt and cook until softened, 3 to 4 minutes, stirring often. Whisk in flour to form a thick paste, then gradually whisk in the milk. Bring to a simmer and let cook for 2 more minutes to thicken. Whisk in the gouda, white cheddar and 1 cup of the yellow cheddar until melted.
4. Remove from heat, stir in the pasta, season with salt and pepper, and transfer to the greased baking dish, smoothing out the mixture with a wooden spoon or spatula. Top with the remaining 1/4 cup of yellow cheddar and the prepared breadcrumbs. Transfer to the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the top is lightly browned. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving. Serves 8.