A few weeks ago, in an attempt to breathe new life into some leftovers, I added a dollop of crème fraîche to a bowl of pork ragu. It melted, forming a creamy, tomato-y sauce that was very rich and very delicious. “I bet this would slap in some mac and cheese,” I thought.
I thought right. I started off simply, adding crème fraîche in place of butter and milk to a box of Kraft. (I did not measure, but spooned in just enough to dissolve the cheese powder into a sauce.) Like the ragu before it, it was also rich and delicious. A baked situation was obviously the next step.
Usually, I’m a stovetop girl, veering towards a gooey, spoonable bowl of macaroni, rather than creamy plate of cheesy noodles. But the baked version has its draws, namely a crispy, crunchy broiled topping and stretchy little strings of cheese that tether the tender pasta to its other noodly friends. Crème fraîche facilitates those intra-pasta cheese pulls, providing a substrate for the cheese to mingle and meld.
It’s a simple recipe that takes well to variations. A pound of pasta, a little over a pound of cheese, and eight ounces of crème fraîche is really all you need for a golden, cheesy pan of macaroni, but you can of course add mustard or herbs, or top the whole thing with potato chips. I am the macaroni and cheese architect, providing a solid structure, but you are the interior designer. (And the roofer, I guess? Because you can make a potato chip roof? I honestly don’t know much about construction.)
You also have a lot of freedom in the cheese department, but I think you should choose at least three. I went Gruyere, gouda, and Kerrygold cheddar—about a cup of each—and I found it pleasing, but as long as you have a little over three cups of shredded cheese, you will be fine. At least three quarters of a cup of cheese should be set aside for the bubbly, broiled top, and you can use a mixture of all of your cheeses or a single selection. It’s all very forgiving, is what I’m saying.
To make this roux-less wonder, you will need:
- 1 pound of macaroni or similar pasta (a clever commenter recently suggested radiatori for mac, and it was a good suggestion)
- 1 cup shredded Gruyere
- 1 cup shredded gouda
- 1 1/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar, divided into 1/2-cup and 3/4 cup portions
- 1 cup crème fraîche
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil and heat your oven to 350℉. Shred your cheese, and add all of it except the 3/4-cup portion of cheddar to a very large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, mix the crème fraîche, mustard, salt, and pepper into a uniform mixture. Combine the crème fraîche mixture with the shredded cheese and stir with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon until the cheese is evenly distributed throughout the crème fraîche. Set aside.
Once the water is boiling, add the pasta and cook until it’s just al dente. Using a spider or slotted spoon, transfer the wet pasta directly from the pot to the bowl of cheese and crème fraîche. The pasta water that tags along with the noodles will help that creamy sauce take shape. Mix the pasta with the cheese mixture, splashing in more pasta water if needed to get everything nice and melty, then transfer to a lightly greased baking dish (a 9″x9″ or something similar works just fine). Top with the remaining cheese and bake for 20-30 minutes, until the top is browned and the sides are bubbling. Remove from the oven, and let cool for 10 minutes before serving.