The Certainty of Mac and Cheese

Some days I realize I have it pretty good, like when I have to buy cheese—a fair amount of it—“in the name of research.” There are also days when my life has me scratching my head: like when “taking a break from work” on Sunday meant doing my taxes. But let’s not talk W-2s. Let’s talk cheese.

This week, I wrote a food column about mac and cheese for South End News. The South End in Boston has a jewel of a food shop, South End Formaggio, with some (read: a lot of) impressive cheeses. My favorite from the weekend’s cheese jaunt was a local blue cheese from Jasper Hill Creamery called Baley Hazen Blue, named after an old military road in Vermont that George Washington authorized the building of.

The process of making Baley Hazen Blue starts off by milking cows first thing in the morning, when the milk has a lower fat content. After getting milked, the cows get to graze on green pasture (in the spring and summer, mind you: they live in Vermont). In the winter, they are fed hay and listen to jazz music. I am not kidding. Whether it’s their diet or their musical snack, this grassy blue cheese has a silky texture reminiscent of a chocolate truffle (and Chet Baker?).

I also bought a smoky raw milk toma, similar to a comté; and after a taste of the cheese and a look at Betty Sue and Lee Robie at their 6th generation farm in Piermont, NH, I was ready to rent a car and drive straight to the Robie Farm (especially because they also make ice cream, which not only features the milk from their happy cows but eggs from local chickens). While there was no specific mention of jazz, they did stress the importance of kindly treated animals.

So these cheeses, along with an emmentaler, made for quite a special mac and cheese: a dish that I’ve oddly developed quite strong views about. It should be made with at least two different kinds of cheese. Baked with buttery breadcrumbs. And while slices of tomato bruléed on top would be okay, I prefer that bacon, sausage, or any otherwise pleasant, yet debaucherous meats be left out of the equation on this one. For me, this dish is all about the cheese. And an elusive, corkscrew noodle called cavatappi: I will rarely make mac and cheese without it.

I suppose I should also now confess that I have a strong distrust of elbow macaroni. I’d like to say it was from the mac and cheese my mom served us growing up, made by melting Velveeta cheese with skim milk in the microwave. Truthfully, I don’t even remember if it was elbow macaroni that she used. Also, it was the 80’s. And I remember liking her mac and cheese; the memory makes me smile. I guess I'll still be scratching my head about this one too.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s hard to find bad mac and cheese, as long as you put some heart into it (and perhaps some jazz). I do think the local cheeses added a little extra oomph, though I can’t say for certain. As it is said, nothing is certain but death and taxes, though I’ll take mac and cheese in the meantime.

Three Cheese Mac and Cheese a la Formaggio

6 tbsp butter, divided
2 tbsp flour
2 cups whole milk
Pinch red chili flakes
Pinch nutmeg
1/2 pound macaroni
1/3 cup bread crumbs, fresh if possible
1 clove garlic, minced
2.5 cups grated cheese, variety (I used 1/4 blue cheese and the rest equal parts swiss and smoked toma)
2 tbsp parmesan cheese
Kosher salt

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Melt 4 tbsp butter in a large pot and add flour. Cook for about 5 minutes on medium heat, careful not to burn the roux (flour and butter mixture); then add your milk, season with salt, pepper, chili flakes and nutmeg, and stir occasionally until mixture starts to thicken. Meanwhile, start to boil water in another pan for the pasta. Season pasta water with salt. When your water is boiling, add pasta and cook about 2 minutes less than the package states. While you are cooking your pasta, add your remaining 2 tbsp butter to a saute pan and add your garlic and saute about 2-3 minutes and then add bread crumbs, season with salt and pepper, and cook until your bread crumbs turn golden and crispy, about 3-4 minutes, set aside.

When your pasta is cooked, drain the water. Add your grated cheese to your thickened milk mixture (you've just made a bechamel sauce: ta-da!); toss in pasta and stir until well combined with sauce. Pour into a casserole pan, top with parmesan cheese and bread crumbs and bake until golden and bubbly, about 20 minutes or so.

Makes about 4 cups

-I usually like a swiss, blue and cheddar cheese (or a "guest" cheese) when I'm making mac. The smoky toma did wonders and I'll be coming back for more.

-Pair this with a side salad of peppery arugula tossed in a mustardy vinaigrette and I'm a happy camper. (South End Formaggio had some tasty looking arugula too.)

-According to the Robie Farm website, South End Formaggio is the only place you can get their goods in Massachusetts.


  1. Wow, this mac and cheese looks absolutely perfect! Is there any better research project than one involving cheese?

  2. Yum! The Publick House has a Mac & Cheese that I haven't been able to recreate but is so delicious that I haven't been able to forget it.

  3. I'm absolutely obsessed with cheese. You know how most people act around chocolate? That's the way I act with cheese...it's just...so...good! This mac and cheese looks awesome. I just LOVE mac and cheese on a cold day..

  4. Hey Plum,

    It looks like I'll be coming to Cambridge/Boston in a few weeks for a short visit. As you're the only person I know on the internet who lives in Boston (and is a foodie), I was hoping you'd be willing to share a few restaurant recommendations. I'm interested in both institutions and hip new places, and am a complete newb to the Boston food scene.

    Merci en avance!

  5. A new kind of macaroni and cheese! Now this is what I'm talking about! Sounds wonderful! My family is so picky they want plain old mac and cheese. I might have to make this for myself!

  6. i've done a total u-turn from my childhood--back then, nothing but the blue box would do, whereas now, i like me some high-end cheeses! your batch looks beautiful.

  7. I love home made mac and cheese and want to dive into the computer for what you've made. It looks so fantastic. Unfortunately, Dudette will only eat what comes out of the blue box at this point. She has no taste! :)

  8. I think it might be too late to register, but you MUST take the cheese class next spring taught by Ihsan Gurdal, the owner of Formaggio Kitchen. Definitely one of the highlights of the Gastronomy program. :-)

  9. So glad you did not add bacon or sausage! Sounds delicious. I love how a lot of restaurants are adding mac & cheese as main dishes or even appetizers, but they all seem to need to add bacon or something to spice it up...just leave it to the cheese!

  10. Glad to hear I am not alone in my love of pure cheese!

    Michelle: I thought of another seafood place: Island Creek Oyster Bar. It's fairly new, and I haven't been yet, but it has received some good reviews. So if you don't want to chance it at Neptune, Island Creek is bigger and I believe they take reservations.

  11. Looks delicious! Just added it to the Boston Food Bloggers mac & cheese recipe index: http://www.bostonfoodbloggers.com/2011/01/mac-and-cheese-melee.html :)

  12. Nice! I'm still looking for a mac-and-cheese recipe I can really get behind - maybe this will be the one?

  13. Love the combination of cheeses you used here. This mac looks and sounds super delicious.

  14. If you ever want to take a road trip to Robie Farm, I'm in! Maybe a spring time adventure...

  15. Oh my Gosh, it looks absolutely delicious! I need to try this!

    Xoxo ♥

    Rocio R.


  16. Definitely trying this out. Will have to walk down to Fromaggio soon.

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