Back in the day, when the clock struck midnight (okay, 3am), my sorority sisters and I could be found scavenging through our house pantry, fridge and freezer for something to calm the beer and liquor in our bellies. The laziest would open bags of popcorn, and the go-getters would melt a bag’s worth of shredded cheese into a bag’s worth of tortilla chips. Then there were girls whose restless sleep ahead could only be made better with a bowlful of one thing: macaroni and cheese.
Mac n’ cheese was my jam—Kraft’s frozen “Mac and Easy,” to be exact. And even though my culinary horizons are a little broader now, to this day I have yet to find a dish that makes me feel like everything’s gonna be alright the same way macaroni and cheese does. But when it’s 95 degrees out, how much trouble do you have to get into to justify turning on the oven?
So I came up with my Summertime Mac n’ Cheese. This recipe doesn’t require an oven, even though you still get that great crunchy topping. And the sauce is rich and satisfying, but feels far lighter than the traditional version thanks to loads of lemon, tangy cheeses and fresh green herbs.
And it can be quick, because both the sauce and almond topping can both be made ahead of time. Store the sauce in the refrigerator and re-heat over a low heat or in the microwave. It can be loosened with a little bit of milk if need be. Store the topping at room temperature in an airtight container or zip lock baggie.
A note about saucery: Béchamel and Mornay
Béchamel sauce is one of the “mother” sauces in French cooking, but even if you don’t know it’s name, you’ve probably seen it before: it’s the white sauce in casseroles, the base of a soufflé and, of course, it’s the base of most mac n’ cheese recipes.
Basically, béchamel is just milk thickened with white roux. The simplest technique for making white roux is to melt butter in a saucepan, add an equal amount of flour, and whisk it together for a minute or two over low heat to cook the flour and release its thickening power.
The ratio of milk to roux varies depending on the dish. To lighten our mac n’ cheese, this béchamel is a little looser; it uses less roux to milk than the standard ratio.
Finally, to turn béchamel into mornay, you simply melt in cheese. Classic mornay is made with gruyere and parmesan, but any cheese will do. This recipe includes parmesan for depth and goat cheese to give it a bright, tangy flavor.
Summertime Mac N’ Cheese
1 pound macaroni or other short dried pasta
For the almond topping:
1½ tablespoons butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small shallot, minced
½ cup sliced almonds
½ cup panko breadcrumbs
¼ teaspoon salt
Zest from 1 lemon
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
For the sauce:
1½ tablespoons butter
1½ tablespoons flour
1½ cups milk (not skim)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
Zest from 1 lemon
2 ounces parmesan cheese, grated
4 ounces goat cheese, cut into small cubes
4 ounces soft cheese such as brie or a triple-crème, cut into small cubes
1 handful basil leaves, chopped
1 handful parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
Cook the pasta: Put a large pot of generously salted water on the stove and bring to a boil. Cook the pasta according to the package directions.
Make the almond topping: While you’re waiting for the water to boil, melt 1½ tablespoons of butter over low heat in a large sauté pan. Add the shallot and garlic and sweat until translucent. Add the breadcrumbs and almonds and toast, stirring, until golden brown. Remove the topping from the heat and season with salt, freshly grated lemon zest and freshly chopped parsley. Set aside.
Make the roux: In a medium saucepan, melt 1½ tablespoons of butter over medium heat. When melted, immediately add 1½ tablespoons of flour and whisk until smooth. Continue to cook over low heat for 2-3 minutes, until the mixture looks like wet sand.
Make the béchamel: Turn up the heat to medium and slowly whisk in the milk. Turn up the heat to medium-high and continue whisking until the mixture comes to a boil. Turn the heat down to low and season with salt and pepper. The mixture should be thick enough to evenly coat the back of a spoon. (Traditionally, you would now cook it over low heat for another 20 minutes to get rid of the “raw” taste of flour; that’s up to you.)
Turn the sauce into mornay: Stir in the parmesan and goat cheese. (You’re saving the soft cheese to toss in just before serving so that you have half-melted chunks of cheese throughout the pasta. Whisk until the sauce is smooth and thick like pancake batter. Season with the lemon juice and fresh lemon zest.
Add herbs, soft cheese, and pasta: Keep the sauce warm over very low heat until the pasta is done cooking. When it’s time to serve, stir in the herbs and remaining soft cheese. Mix sauce with hot pasta, top generously with almond topping, and serve.