Baked Rigatoni with Three Cheeses

“Like cheese and macaroni” is an Italian idiomatic expression used when two things work together harmoniously, naturally, and effortlessly.  I would add deliciously to that list.  Cheese and noodles are really satisfying together, but you already know that, don’t you?  🙂  I’m a big fan of baked or broiled noodle dishes.  This last step adds other dimensions of flavor and texture, and it’s pretty simple to execute.  So let’s jump into this version of cheese and macaroni!

Here’s the shopping cart; mushrooms, sausage, onion, garlic, parsley, and three cheeses (blue, fontina and Gouda).  I like the cheese trifecta.  The fontina melts well, gouda lends body and sweetness, and the blue gives a punch of salt and savor.

Here’s what you need in order to make a cheese sauce at home.  Essentially, what you’re making is a cheese rich bechamel sauce.  Bechamel is a milk sauce that is thickened with roux.  If you need roux tips, look here.  I little tip I always remember for bechamel is that one ounce of roux with thicken one cup of milk.  So for this batch I used four ounces total (2 butter, 2 flour).

Once you get your white sauce up and running, get that cheese in the works.  For a quart of sauce, I started with about two cups of cheese business.  Stir the cheese into your warm sauce, and season with a little of whatever you like.  I like nutmeg and cayenne, salt and black pepper.

And here’s the other stuff that makes eating pasta so delicious; mushrooms, onion, and sausage.  If you buy little closed mushrooms like the ones here, I always wash them off before I proceed.  If they are wild, or have exposed gills, I brush, or wipe, or pick them clean.  When I can, I like to use one pan for this part, so I start with a good high-heat saute on the mushrooms until they color, and then I bring the onions to the party.  Last, I give the sausage a little time in the pan to color and develop flavors.

The, I like to drain all of the ‘garnish’ so that I’m not diluting my delicious cheese sauce with the moisture that the veggies are giving up.  It’s all about the little thing…

You could use standard bread crumbs for dishes like these or you can dress them up a bit.  This version is a parsley bread crumb.  When you get herbs, be sure to wash before using.  I know they look clean and all that, but there’s almost always dirt there, I assure you.  Use a big bowl, and shake the herbs around.  Then, drain them and spin them dry in a salad spinner like the crazy yellow one above.  If you find yourself stranded on a small desert island with no herb spinning device, use a colander and then roll the herbs in some paper towels or a clean kitchen towel, and give them a good squeeze to absorb the water.

This is a quick way to chop the crap out of some parsley, and then make tasty bread crumbs.  Toss the parsley into a food processor, and pulse it until the pieces start to get small.  Then, throw in some of your bread crumbs, which will help get everything chopping.  Once everything is the size you want, add the remaining bread crumbs and pulse a couple of times to incorporate them.  Oh, start boiling some water, it’s almost time to eat!

Now, take a minute to make them really delicious.  Add a little garlic, some olive oil, and grated Parmesan, then taste, and season with salt and pepper to your liking.  You can turn on the broiler at this point, too.

I made a whole mess of this stuff, so I saved the rest for later (on gnocchi, and on baked eggs, and to thicken a soup).

Now we just need to bring everything together.  Add the garnish to the cheese sauce, incorporate them well, and check the flavor.  Adjust the seasoning, and make sure the sauce is delicious.  I added a little Tabasco and cayenne in the end.

For this dish, I wanted almost equal volumes of noodles and sauce.  I also had some fresh basil kicking around in the vegetable drawer, so it went into the mix, torn into bite-size pieces.  Then I added the warm sauce to the hot rigatoni and tossed it all together.

Here’s the last step in the dish.  I plated the pasta, and covered it with the parsley bread crumb mixture.  Then I popped it into the oven, under the broiler.  When the bread crumbs were toasty and delicious looking, I pulled these guys out, and we went to town.  Be sure to keep an eye on them in the broiler, once they start to brown they can go from delicious to burnt pretty quickly.

While it may not be the macaroni and cheese that some of us grew up eating, it is a tasty variation that is open to interpretations.  My friend Shane still remembers the mac & cheese we used to serve him at my first (real) restaurant job in Nebraska.  That was over ten years ago, folks.  Powerful stuff.  I hope you find some tips or ideas in this episode to turn up the volume on your next cheesy pasta moment.

Be well, and eat well-



One comment on “Baked Rigatoni with Three Cheeses

  1. Trish says:

    Oh I am so impressed…and the best part for me was learning about the bread crumbs and parsley…I am definitely going to make some and keep it handy…like you said, for thickening, topping etc.! Yummy post today.

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