As a kid, my tastes were never quite in sync with the rest of the world. That’s a self-indulgent way to say I was a picky eater, but not always in the traditional sense. I loved spinach, didn’t like spaghetti. I didn’t care for sour cream, so I put ranch dressing on my baked potatoes. (This was in the 70s, before ranch became a universal condiment.) My favorite candy bar was Special Dark, which in my tiny town was usually only available as a “Big Block” that cost more than a regular size candy bar – i.e. more than my weekly allowance. Now, of course, dark chocolate is all the rage. I was a trendsetter at age 8!
Additionally, I didn’t (and still don’t, to be honest) like my food to touch on the plate, or even in my mouth. I’d eat a piece of cheese and a piece of bread, but I didn’t really like cheese sandwiches. Casseroles were consumed reluctantly. The argument “it all gets mixed together in your stomach anyway” was not convincing … my stomach wasn’t the part doing the tasting!
And in a family of orange-cheese-eaters, my favorite was mozzarella. Cheddar was just OK, American slices in plastic wrap borderline tolerable in a pinch, and Velveeta was – and is – revolting. It’s not even real cheese! (And the FDA agrees with me) Fortunately, my parents were fairly accommodating (although I’m sure there were MANY eye rolls behind my back) and there was usually mozzarella in the fridge so that I, too, could have a cheeseburger when Dad was grilling.
My freshman year in college, I went on a school trip to New York City and our first night there, we ate at an Italian restaurant. The starter was a caprese salad – fresh mozzarella and tomato slices sprinkled with basil and drizzled with olive oil. I was IN LOVE. That was in 1988, and it was a couple of decades before I started seeing “mozzarella fresca” (the kind packed in water) in my grocery store with any regularity, but now I buy it routinely. I try to keep some homemade balsamic vinegar reduction on hand (boil it down until it kind of looks like Hershey’s chocolate syrup) so I can drizzle it over ciliegine, and while I often don’t even bother with the tomatoes or basil, I am still a big fan of most things Caprese-style, and this mac & cheese is no exception!
Caprese Mac & Cheese
There’s no one source for this – I kind of thought up what I wanted to try, looked at a bunch of recipes and cobbled together various bits and pieces.
- 3 cups of milk
- ½ cup of butter
- ½ cup of flour
- 2 tsps. Kosher salt
- 8 oz. penne pasta (see notes)
- 1 ½ cups shredded low-moisture part-skim mozzarella, plus extra for topping (see notes)
- ½ cup shredded Parmesan, plus more for topping (see notes)
- 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved or quartered
- Optional: 8 oz. ciliegine mozzarella fresca (see notes), halved or quartered
- Preheat the oven to 400.
- Cook the pasta until just barely al dente, then drain and rinse with cold water.
- In a small pan, heat the milk until just on the edge of boiling. Remove from heat
- In a larger pan, melt the butter, then stir in the flour, whisking for 3- 4 minutes until it is light brown.
- Remove from heat and pour in the milk about a cup at a time, whisking continually.
- Once all the milk has been added, return the pan to the burner, and continue whisking until the mixture is smooth, about 3-4 minutes.
- Remove a cup of sauce for later use
- Add in the cheeses and stir until it’s all melted, then add the cooked pasta and half the tomatoes and stir until it’s coated.
- You can serve and eat now, topping with extra mozzarella, parmesan, and basil (and more tomatoes if desired), or move on to the next step.
- Transfer to a baking dish and top with the remaining tomatoes and the fresh mozzarella (optional). Layer additional shredded mozzarella and Parmesan and sprinkle chopped basil and bake at 400 for 15-20 minutes, then switch to broil for 5 minutes until the cheese is golden and bubbling.
This sauce is pretty mild on its own, especially if you prefer a good strong cheesy flavor, but the tomato and basil punch it up quite nicely, so be generous to make sure you get some of both in each bite.
It’s also going to be a little longer until you’re actually taking a bite if you decide to go with the baking step, so factor that in if you’re really hungry. Cutting up the tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella doesn’t add significant prep time, but it takes a couple of minutes.
I ate a serving fresh from the stovetop while the rest was baking, and then – strictly for comparison’s sake – another round when it came out of the oven. I definitely preferred the baked version, the crispy cheese layer makes it worth the extra time.
St. Patrick’s Day is this week, so check back next Sunday for an Irish-themed mac!
- It doesn’t have to be penne, any similar size pasta – excuse me, “macaroni product” – such as elbow, rotini, farfalle, etc. will work, I just have a preference for penne for no discernible reason.
- While I just got done singing the praises of fresh mozzarella, it’s not the best grating or melting cheese, and the high moisture levels can make things watery, so the regular grocery store kind that you can grate easily works best here.
- It’s best not to use the bags of pre-shredded cheese, since that has a coating to prevent clumping that affects how it melts or something. I love my Salad Shooter for grating cheese blocks quickly and not wearing out my arm. (I’m so delicate.) (Or out of shape. One of these things.)
- Ciliegine fresh mozzarella is about the same size as a cherry tomato and allows for uniformity in the presentation, but bocconcini can certainly be substituted and diced into smaller chunks. Just make sure it’s drained REALLY well, and maybe even pat it down or roll it around in a paper towel to remove excess moisture.
Posted March 15, 2020