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Take mac and cheese from basic to extra

Gretchen McKay
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It’s hard to go wrong with macaroni and cheese. A staple comfort food, its cheesy goodness is loved by kids and adults alike, for lunch, dinner or a late-night snack. Even the blue-box variety can hit the spot in a pinch. But to take it to the next level, you really should go all out with a rich, homemade cheese sauce.

This recipe gets an elegant upgrade with the addition of fennel, an aromatic veggie with a licorice-like flavor and crunch that reminds you of celery. It gets a quick braise in Marsala wine, which makes it sweet, and the leftover cooking liquid is then used to make the creamy sauce with mascarpone and Swiss cheese instead of the traditional cheddar. Diced ham steak makes the dish even more of a hearty keeper.

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The original recipe calls for making the mac and cheese in a buttered casserole dish, but I made it a one-pot meal by combining everything in the 12-inch cast iron skillet used to make the cheese sauce. I also used shredded Swiss instead of the recommended grated Gruyère.

Don’t skimp on the panko-and-Parmesan topping: It adds a delicious crunch.

Mac and cheese gets an elegant upgrade with braised fennel, Swiss and chunks of ham.

Campanelle Gratin With Ham and Braised Fennel

For fennel

  • 6 cups water
  • 4 small fennel bulbs, sliced
  • 1/4 cup sweet Marsala wine
  • 2 fresh bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt

For sauce

  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups cooking liquid from braised fennel
  • 1 8-ounce container mascarpone
  • 1 cup grated Swiss cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon white pepper

For assembly

  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 8 ounces dried campanelle pasta
  • 6 ounces ham steak, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Prepare fennel: Place water, fennel, Marsala, bay leaves and salt in a 4-quart saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until fennel is tender, about 15 minutes. Strain, reserving 2 cups of cooking liquid. Set braised fennel aside.

In a large cast-iron skillet, prepare sauce. Melt butter in pan over medium-low heat. Add flour and stir until fragrant and golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Gradually whisk in reserved fennel liquid. Bring mixture to a boil and cook until thickened, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add mascarpone, Swiss, salt and pepper, then stir to incorporate. Keep warm while you prepare pasta.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bring a large pot of water seasoned with 1 tablespoon of salt to boil. Add pasta and only partially cook for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally (it will continue cooking in the oven). Drain pasta.

Mix pasta with braised fennel and ham in the skillet with the cheese sauce. Stir to combine well, making sure all of the pasta is coated in sauce. Cover with panko and Parmesan, then drizzle with oil. Bake until top is golden brown and pasta is bubbling, about 35 to 40 minutes.

Serve hot.

Serves 6.

— Adapted from “Lush Life: Food & Drinks From the Garden” by Valerie Rice (Prospect Park, $35)