Bonus: you can easily make the recipe ahead, too.
After a busy holiday season, the new year is the perfect time to hunker down with a few hearty, comforting meals. Our top pick? A bubbling, crispy-topped dish of mac and cheese. On this week's episode of Mad Genius, Food & Wine Culinary Director at Large Justin Chapple prepares his recipe for Baked Shells with Gremolata Breadcrumbs, which is packed with two types of cheese and has a breadcrumb topping he gives an extra-special touch.
"When it comes to mac and cheese, are you team gooey center, or are you team crispy top?" Justin asks. "The good news is, for this recipe, you get both, because I serve an herby, crunchy gremolata breadcrumb tableside so that you always get the perfect bite."
The whole dish comes together in just under an hour and a half, and it yields 10 servings, so you can count on leftovers if you aren't feeding a crowd. Read on to find out how to make it at home and follow along with the video above.
Cook the Shells
First, you'll need to cook your pasta. Take medium pasta shells (large shells or elbow macaroni will also work) and boil them in a large pot of salted water until they're al dente. Then, drain them, transfer them to a large bowl, and toss them with a little bit of extra-virgin olive oil so the shells don't stick together.
Shred the Cheese
While the pasta cooks, grab your fontina and cheddar cheeses so you can get them ready for the sauce. Shred them on the large holes of a box grater — don't forget to reserve half a cup of each for the mac and cheese topping.
Make the Sauce
The ultra-creamy sauce for this mac and cheese starts with a roux (made with unsalted butter and all-purpose flour). Cook it in the same pot you used for the pasta until it it's lightly browned. At this point, you should gradually whisk in the warmed milk and half-and-half to form a smooth sauce. After it has simmered for a few minutes (to cook out all of the floury taste), remove the sauce from the heat and gradually — gradually! — whisk in the fontina and cheddar. Don't rush this step; if you incorporate the cheese too quickly, the temperature of the sauce will drop, causing it to seize.
Once the sauce is smooth, whisk in the onion powder, garlic powder, white pepper, and ground nutmeg (extra points if you grate it into the pot), and fold in the shells. With a final seasoning of kosher salt and black pepper, you're ready to bake.
Assemble and Bake
Transfer the shells to a broiler-safe baking dish, spreading them out evenly, and then sprinkle on the reserved cheddar and fontina. The mac and cheese cooks in two steps — first, for about 20 minutes at 350°F until it's bubbling, immediately followed by a quick broil for three to four minutes. It should emerge from the oven browned in spots. Allow it to cool for five minutes before serving.
Make ahead tip: If you'd like, you can assemble the mac and cheese in the baking dish and refrigerate it overnight before baking the next day. Just let it stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before you get it in the oven.
Make the Breadcrumbs
Meanwhile, make the final component of the dish, the gremolata breadcrumbs. All you need is panko, chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, minced lemon peel strips, and a small clove of grated garlic. Toast the panko in the remaining olive oil in a skillet over medium until it's deep golden in color, and then let it cool for two minutes. Stir in the parsley, lemon peel, and garlic, along with a little bit of salt to finish it off.
Baked Shells with Gremolata Breadcrumbs
Photo by Christopher Testani / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Prissy Lee
Once the gremolata breadcrumbs are done, you're all set to eat. Justin grabs some mac and cheese and tops half of it with the breadcrumbs, leaving the other half plain.
"Cheesy, gooey, rich in flavor," he says after trying a bite without the breadcrumbs. Then, after tasting the breadcrumb-topped mac and cheese: "Still got that rich, cheesy flavor, but we've got that crunchy, crunchy top. That parsley and that lemon just cuts the richness perfectly. It's official. It is confirmed. Ladies and gentlemen, this recipe comes with a 100-percent happiness guarantee."