Like a lot of American kids, I ate my fair share of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread, Jello, fish sticks and Kraft macaroni and cheese, which my mom sometimes jazzed up by adding sliced hot dogs to. Growing up in northern Illinois, I think it’s safe to say I never would have imagined that one day I’d swap the suburbs for the countryside and that ubiquitous blue box for a homemade mac and cheese in my kitchen thousands of miles across the ocean in Ireland.
This mac and cheese couldn’t be further removed from my childhood dinner — it got a grown-up artisan makeover by using three Irish farmhouse cheeses. It’s certainly not an everyday kind of recipe and anyone on a diet should look away now, but keep it up your sleeve for when you want to treat yourself. Make this after payday when your bank balance allows for a little splurge, when you’re feeling skinny and can indulge in some carbs and dairy, on a cold, rainy night when you want something rib-sticking or one one of those days when you need some serious comfort food. It’s also a perfect way to use up any odds and ends left over from a cheese board.
Irish Farmhouse Mac and Cheese
If you can’t get Glebe Brethan cheese, use Gruyère or Comté instead; if you can’t get Mount Callan cheddar, any sharp, mature cheddar will work; if you can’t get Bellingham Blue, any blue cheese is fine; and if you don’t like blue cheese, use brie.
for the mac and cheese:
500 g (1 lb 2 oz) penne or macaroni
50 g (4 tablespoons) butter
4 tablespoons flour
750 ml (3 cups) milk
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
freshly ground black pepper
225 g (2 cups) Glebe Brethan cheese, grated
175 g (1 3/4 cups) Mount Callan Cheddar, grated
100 g (1 cup) Bellingham Blue cheese, crumbled
for the herb breadcrumb topping:
25 g (2 tablespoons) butter
150 g (1 1/2 cups) fresh breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water according to the package instructions. Drain and set aside.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large pot (one big enough to take all the cooked pasta later), then add the flour. Whisk it together to form a paste and allow this roux to cook for 2 or 3 minutes on a medium heat, until it’s golden brown. Add in a little of the milk and whisk to combine, then gradually add in the rest of the milk, whisking all the time. Simmer until the white sauce is thickened and smooth, which should take about 5 minutes, stirring now and then to make sure it isn’t catching on the bottom of the pot. Stir in the thyme, mustard and a generous grinding of black pepper (I skip the salt here because cheese tends to have a lot), then add in the cheeses. Stir well until the cheese has all melted and the sauce is smooth again. Remove from the heat and add in the drained, cooked pasta, stirring until all the pasta has been coated with the sauce.
To make the herb breadcrumb topping, melt the 25 g (2 tablespoons) of butter in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add in the breadcrumbs and stir until they’re all coated with the butter, then add in the thyme and some salt and pepper and stir again. Fry for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the breadcrumbs are golden brown. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Transfer the pasta to one large casserole dish, individual gratin dishes or large ramekins. Place the dish(es) on a baking tray to make it easier to transfer everything to the oven and catch any spills that might bubble over, then sprinkle the top with the breadcrumbs. Bake in the oven for 15 or 20 minutes, until the pasta is piping hot and the breadcrumbs are crispy. Serve straight away. This is best eaten on the day it’s made.