We see dropping temps as the perfect excuse to use comfort food to stay warm. And there may not be any dish more comforting than a big casserole of mac and cheese. Tender pasta noodles get tossed with a creamy cheese sauce—the perfect way to celebrate bikini season being over. So we've come up with our ultimate version of the dish, adding a few fall ingredients into the mix for seasonality.
Caramelized onions, chicken-apple sausage and Honeycrisp apples come together for the base. As for the cheese sauce, hard apple cider deglazes the pan before making a roux to thicken the sauce. The final touch is one pound of grated cheese just because we can (and should).
The big cheese. What's the secret to success here? "It's all about the cheese!" Kurt Beecher Dammeier, owner and founder of Beecher's Handmade Cheese in NYC and Seattle (and one of our favorite spots to get a mac fix), tells us. Beecher’s uses its signature Flagship cheese, an aged semihard cow’s milk cheese, mixed with its Just Jack cheese for sharpness.
We use the same concept of mixing sharp cheese with a robust, nutty cheese for our version. Aged cheddar, sharp cheddar, Gruyère and Parmesan come together for a sharp and creamy sauce that complements the bold flavors of the caramelized onions and hard cider.
Tasteful noods. We know it’s called mac and cheese, but with such big flavors at play, those tiny little elbows just don't cut it. We use cavatappi, which is a longer, corkscrew-shaped macaroni. Its long ridges are perfect for the cheese sauce to stick to, a key quality when choosing a good pasta variety for mac and cheese.
You can find cavatappi in your local grocery store, but feel free to substitute other similar pastas such as penne, fusilli or gemelli.
Half baked. We finish our mac and cheese under the broiler to melt and brown the top layer of cheese. Instead of a longer baking time to finish, this recipe just needs a few minutes in the oven to reach golden perfection. Then, the key is to let the dish rest. This allows the pasta to absorb the cheese sauce into every nook and cranny.
And while we love this particular sweet-and-savory ingredient combo, this dish is easily adjustable for any season. Replace the cider with beer, the chicken-apple sausage with ground pork sausage and the apples with your favorite vegetable, like cauliflower (we won't tell if you just leave out the veggies completely). All we ask is that you just don't skimp on the cheese.
Mac & Cheese with Chicken-Apple Sausage Recipe
Recipe from the Tasting Table Test Kitchen
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Prep Time: 20 minutes, plus resting time
Cook Time: 35 minutes
Total Time: 55 minutes, plus resting time
Kosher salt, to taste
1 pound cavatappi pasta
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 ounces aged cheddar, shredded
4 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded
4 ounces Gruyère, shredded
4 ounces Parmesan, shredded
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 ounces chicken-apple sausage, cut into ½-inch pieces
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 Honeycrisp apples—peeled, cored and cut into ½-inch pieces
½ cup hard cider
¼ cup all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons minced sage
1 teaspoon thyme leaves, minced
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the cavatappi and cook until al dente, 8 minutes. Drain in a colander and transfer to a large bowl. Toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil to prevent sticking and set aside. In a medium bowl, toss the cheeses together and set aside.
2. Preheat the broiler. In a 6-quart Dutch oven, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the butter over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and cook, stirring often, until lightly golden, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and onion, and cook until softened and lightly caramelized, 8 to 10 minutes.
3. Stir in the apples and cook until lightly softened, 4 to 6 minutes. Pour in the hard cider and cook, stirring to scrape the brown bits off the bottom of the pot, until the cider has evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes.
4. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture, stirring to evenly coat all the contents of the pot, 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly pour in the milk, stirring constantly, until incorporated without any lumps. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring often, until thickened, 5 minutes.
5. Add all but 1 cup of the cheese mixture and the minced sage and thyme. Stir until the cheese has melted and is incorporated, 1 minute. Add the cooked pasta and toss to coat, then remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper.
6. Transfer all of the pasta to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and sprinkle with the remaining shredded cheese. Broil until the cheese is bubbly and golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Let rest for 10 minutes, then serve.