Well, in this case, fusilli and cheese, but what a mouthful to say. In truth, like most people, I use whatever pasta strikes my fancy and I use whatever cheese I feel like too! If I was trying really hard, yes, I would get out the pecorino and mature cheddar and maybe some gruyere. I would sprinkle homemade breadcrumbs atop the glistening pasta noodles and garnish with fresh basil. But this isn’t that kind of party. This is my son’s favorite food and something he requests (but doesn’t quite get) every week. So this is my speedy version. And what I’m offering is more of a guideline rather than a set-in-stone recipe.
Few things to bear in mind for really good baked pasta and cheese IMHO. Don’t overcook the pasta. (Never overcook pasta. That’s just… the worst.) Make the sauce extremely cheesy. Make a lot of sauce–enough for the pasta to absorb it in the oven and still be creamy. Any leftover cheese sauce can be frozen.
1. Boil salted water and cook the pasta al dente. As I read somewhere, add enough salt so that it’s like sea water. This is actually a key step in having delicious pasta on your plate. Strain the hot pasta and set aside.
2. Grate the cheese and get started on the bechamel or white sauce while the pasta is cooking. I like a mix of strong cheeses, but tonight I used what I had–plenty of monterey jack, a little baby swiss, parmesan and mozzarella.
3. When melting the butter for the roux, toss in a smashed and chopped fat clove of garlic. Or smash it and rub it over the bottom of the baking tray. I prefer it to go right in the bechamel. When the butter has melted, add in a bit of flour and whisk. The roux should be the texture of wet sand. Cook it for a couple minutes to take out the flavor of the flour and add in milk, whisking to incorporate.
4. Heat up the milk but don’t boil it. Whisk every so often until it starts to thicken. Then add in the seasoning–plenty of salt and fresh ground pepper and some fresh grated nutmeg.
5. Add in the grated cheese and mix. Keep the heat low or turn it off as you are just melting the cheese. Taste to make sure it’s cheesy enough!
6. Mix the sauce in with the pasta, enough sauce that the whole thing seems too soupy. Cover with a layer of grated cheese and bake in the oven until the top is golden.
A bit of creamy cheesy pasta with a crunchy crust and chewy (not mushy) noodles can actually be pretty spectacular.
This humble dish is either the beginning or the end. Leave as is or add in jalapenos, broccoli florets, mushrooms, cream… Cover with bread crumbs and oregano… Anything to make it special. My favorite version is to drop dollops of homemade spicy chipotle and garlic cream over the top before baking.