When I was raising my kids in America, they always asked me about macaroni and cheese at friends’ houses. When I looked into it as a young mother, I realized the options were mostly mushy pasta with powdered processed cheese. Mac and cheese has now come a long way from the early 1970s, but back then I came up with my own version for my kids, an elegant Italian rendition; the addition of some asparagus and peas makes it lighter and even more Italian. Their friends really loved my version, and it has stuck.
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for the baking dish
- Kosher salt
- 2-to-3-ounce chunk of day-old country bread, crust removed
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Grana Padano
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 3 1/2 cups whole milk
- 2 fresh bay leaves
- 8 ounces Italian Fontina, grated
- 8 ounces mild provola, grated
- 4 ounces Taleggio, rind removed, cut into pieces
- 1 pound penne
- 1 small bunch thick asparagus spears, tough ends removed, lower stalks peeled, stalks cut into 1-inch segments
- 1 cup frozen peas
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, and set it aside. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta.
Grate (on the large holes of a box grater) the bread into small crumbs; you should have about 1 cup. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a small skillet over medium-low heat. Scatter in the crumbs, and cook, tossing frequently, until they’re light golden and crisp, about 3 minutes. Set them aside, and when they’re cool, stir in the Grana Padano.
To make the sauce: Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons butter in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Once the butter is melted, whisk in the flour, and cook to toast it a bit, 1 to 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk until the mixture is smooth. Add the bay leaves and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it’s thickened, 6 to 8 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, and stir in the Fontina, provola, and Taleggio, a few handfuls at a time, stirring until it’s smooth.
Meanwhile, add the pasta to the boiling water. Once the pasta is halfway cooked and still quite al dente, add the asparagus and peas, and cook until the pasta is al dente. Drain the pasta and vegetables, and add them directly to the sauce. Stir to coat the pasta thoroughly, and transfer the entire mixture to the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with the crumbs. Bake until the edges are bubbly and the top is golden brown, 40 to 45 minutes.