italian-mac-and-cheese

Before yesterday, my sister didn’t know how to fry chicken.

And being that she’s in her third trimester – when all things must align and get done RIGHT NOW BEFORE THE BABY COMES OR YOU WILL SUFFER THE WRATH OF THE BELLY – my grandmother, my mother, my spectacularly-pregnant sister and I gathered at Mom’s to commence the frying.

The weather has been unseasonably cool, so we made it through three fryers without breaking a sweat. We also shucked, scraped and fried 24 ears of fresh sweet corn. Jennifer and I scraped, Mama fried the huge skillet full of creamy, starchy corn and butter, and Mommaw was the Official Taste-Tester.

While we worked, we talked baby names. Jenn yelled from the kitchen to Mommaw: “What if we gave her your name but spelled it with a ‘C’ instead of a ‘K?'”

“Well, you could,” Mommaw said. “But it’d be wrong.”

The fried chicken was meant for all of us to take home for dinner. For lunch, we raided Mom’s fridge for chopped salad and Mommaw’s stash of pasta with cheese. She always has some form of the stuff (i.e. baked spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, fettuccine alfredo). Something simple and good. Every time we see someone on TV makes one of those “ultimate” mac and cheese recipes with six or seven cheeses, she says, “I guess I’m just not smart enough to taste seven cheese at once.”

Me neither.

For a great macaroni and cheese, you need one high-quality cheese and lots of it. Two if you’re having company. The main cheese should be a melt-in-your-mouth cheese, like a sharp Cheddar or a Gruyere. The second cheese might be a handful of Parmesan, something to mix with bread crumbs if you want a crunchy topping with a little bite.

In the summertime, I like to make this Italian version of mac and cheese: Baked Shells with Fontina and Parmesan Bread Crumbs. If you’ve never tried Fontina, it’s a semi-hard Italian cheese that might remind you of Gruyere or Swiss. It’s creamy and nutty and fairly pungent. For the best flavor and that perfect, buttery texture, make sure to use a Fontina made in Italy. (Once, I grabbed a Fontina made by a company with an Italian name, but that company was actually located in Denmark. Denmark, Wisconsin. It pays to read the entire label.)

This Italian mac and cheese seems right to me when it’s hot outside, because it’s so much lighter than the traditional Cheddar. It’s not front-loaded with eggs, sour cream, whole milk or half-and-half. The sauce contains butter and cream, but not as much as you’d find in other recipes. Instead, the real flavor comes from the contrast between the creamy Fontina and the biting Parmesan-flavored bread crumbs. It’s even better the next day. And it’s delicious cold. Pair it with a green salad and a little something off the grill, and you’ve got a perfect summer supper.

Of course, it would also go nicely with fried chicken and fresh sweet corn.

Baked Shells with Fontina and Parmesan Bread Crumbs

From Jack Bishop’s “The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook”

Serves 4 to 6

  • 5 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 pound small shells
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 8 ounces (about 2 cups) Italian Fontina cheese
  • Salt
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/3 cup plain bread crumbs
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  1. Bring 4 quarts water to a boil in a large pot for cooking the pasta. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Use 1/2 tablespoon of the butter to grease a 13-by-9-inch baking dish, and set aside.
  2. Dice 4 tablespoons of the butter, and place in a large bowl. Warm the cream in the microwave, about 1 minute. Cover to keep the cream warm. Shred the Fontina. Set aside.
  3. When the water comes to a boil, add the shells . Cook until they are 1 to 2 minutes shy of al dente. Drain.
  4. Stir the shells into the bowl with the butter. Toss to coat well.
  5. Add the warm cream and Fontina, and stir until the cheese starts to melt. Season with salt to taste and the nutmeg.
  6. Pour the mixture into the baking dish.
  7. Combine the bread crumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and sprinkle over the pasta.
  8. Dice the remaining tablespoon butter, and dot the crumb topping with small pieces of butter.
  9. Bake until the sauce is bubbling and the topping turns golden brown, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately.