Just about any food that you share with family or friends, or even without them, to some degree is “comfort food”. But there are some dishes that evoke that classification more readily than others. Macaroni and cheese is a classic and even though a really well made mac&cheese is like a cozy blanket in a bowl, the dish is most often prepared artlessly and is uninteresting.
This recipe raises the common mac&cheese to a new level of sophistication. While this decadent dish bears little resemblance to the bright orange pre-packed kit meals sold in a blue box, it is still a food that will warm you right down to your soul even when the temperature is drops to none degrees. This dish is inspired by the light mushroom and cream sauces of Northern Italy. It can be made ahead of time and baked just ahead of your guests (or family) arriving. Leave enough time for the dish to set for at least 5 minutes after baking.
¼ oz dried porcini mushrooms
3 cups milk or ½ & ½
4 T butter
1 large shallot minced
1 # fresh shiitake sliced
3 T flour
1 # penne
1 cup Reggiano cheese
6 oz grated fontina
2 oz good Italian prosciutto sliced thin and julienned
the sauce: Reconstitute the dried porcini and make its broth by pouring a cup of boiling water over the porcini and allow to steep until the liquid is cool. Remove the mushrooms and chop them finely. Strain the liquid in a 3 qt + saucepot and bring to a slow boil to reduce. It will take about 20 minutes to reach the point of reduction required. Once reduced, add the ½& ½ and bring to a boil. In a separate pan, melt some of the butter, add the minced shallot and allow to “sweat” for a few minutes (sauté without taking color). Then add the shiitake and chopped porcini. Sautee until the liquid is evaporated and then add the rest of the butter. Add the flour and stir constantly over medium heat until the flour gives off a nutty aroma. (this is called a blonde roux) Stir in the mushroom cream and bring to a boil stirring well all the while. Set this mushroom sauce aside in a large bowl.
the pasta: Cook the penne in a pot of plenty of salted boiling water. Strain when the pasta is quite al dente (it will continue to cook while baking in the oven with the sauce.)
to finish: Add the above ingredients to the mushrooms sauce save about ½ of the parmesan. Toss the penne into the sauce and incorporate well. Place everything into a baking dish. Sprinkle the rest of the parmesan and place in a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes. Raise the temperature to 450 for the last part of the baking and remove when the cheese is well browned (an additional 10 minutes).