It all started innocently enough — I was doing some volunteer work at a store run by my church, Saint Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral in Helena, Montana. The church administrator walked by the desk where I was working, stopped dead in his tracks, and said, “You cook.” “Yeeeess.” was my reply. He then told me that he wanted to have a reception after each of two concerts the church was hosting to benefit Ukraine. Thinking he was referring to maybe about 50 guests, I agreed. Then the bomb dropped as he started talking about the 160 or so that the church would hold, plus the musicians, plus the video crew, plus… Realizing I might regret this, I ignored the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, mumbled something about checking with my sous chef, and left it at that. It’s always fun to go home and tell my husband about the latest adventure I’ve roped him into.
We really wanted to help with the reception and my husband can take credit for coming up with the idea of an elegant macaroni and cheese. Years ago, when I had a personal chef business, this dish was one of my clients’ absolute favorites. One client in particular requested this dish almost every time I cooked for her.
We hitched up the buckboard and went into town to buy supplies. Just kidding — but living in the middle of a large valley outside of Helena, Montana, sometimes it seems that way. We decided to prepare 300 servings of the pasta dish in four enormous disposable aluminum roasting pans. My husband got busy grating 16 pounds of cheese while I began roasting 16 heads of garlic and mincing 32 shallots. We decided to prepare half the pasta on two separate days. It took us all day both days but dare I say it was kind of fun. Each batch of pasta tasted delicious, and we knew it was going to be a bit hit at the reception.
So how did it go? Well, we don’t know yet. We had just begun preparing the fourth and final 75 servings when the phone rang. It turned out that the concert was postponed for a month because some of the performers had come down with COVID. We didn’t have any choice but to freeze the pasta. We’ll know in a few days when the receptions actually take place. The adventure continues…
Pasta Mornay with (or not) Ham
Mornay sauce is a white sauce (béchamel) with grated cheese added. In this case it’s the “backbone” of the recipe. Use any smallish pasta you prefer. I like the medium shells because the sauce gets trapped inside, which makes for a nice bite. Ham is optional. We made the dish without it for the reception to appeal to the vegetarians in the group.
1 head of garlic
1 and 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 large shallots, minced
2 cups whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon finely shredded lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
8 ounces extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 pound medium shells (conchiglie), ditalini, or other small pasta
8 ounces ham, cut into 1/4-inch pieces (optional)
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the top off the head of garlic so the cloves are exposed. Place the garlic cut side up on a sheet of aluminum foil. Drizzle with 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Wrap the foil around the garlic to make a tight little package. Place the garlic on a small sheet pan, in case it leaks, and bake until garlic cloves are soft and tender, about 55 minutes. Allow the package to cool, then remove the garlic and squeeze the cloves out of their skins, chop into small bits, and place in a small bowl.
Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté 4 minutes, or until soft. Whisk in the milk, cream, thyme, lemon zest, roasted garlic and nutmeg. Simmer over medium heat until the mixture has thickened and reduced to about 2 and 3/4 cups, about 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and gradually add the cheeses, stirring until smooth and creamy. Taste the sauce and season to taste with salt and white pepper.
While the sauce is simmering, cook the pasta in a large pot of salted water, following package directions. You want it to be tender but still firm. I have found that cooking pasta 1 minute less than the lowest time on the package is perfect, but you may prefer it cooked a little more.
Mix the cheese sauce, pasta, ham, and parsley in a large bowl, and serve.