My original source of inspiration, years ago, was in The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas. And, as she assures us, "this dish bears very little resemblance to the macaroni and cheese of American convenience foods." I have added various things to it from time to time, including sliced olives, ham, onions, herbs, but it is basically a very simple, old Roman recipe. Simply wonderful that is. And a classic comfort food.
Baked Macaroni and Cheese3 cups Sauce Bechamel
2 lb. mostaccioli pasta (otherwise known as mac)
4 oz. Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
3/4 lb. Fontina cheese, coarsely grated (cheddar is fine as well)
salt and fresh-ground black pepper
1 cup buttered breadcrumbs
That is the basic recipe, to which I added last night:
1/2 cup roughly cut, thin sliced Serrano ham
1/2 minced onion and 1 minced shallot, lightly sauteed in butter til limp
Bechamel Sauce3 tbs. butter
3 tbs. flour
2 1/2 cups hot milk
grated pepper and salt
3 good sized sprigs of thyme; 1 bay leaf
Heat the butter til bubbly, then stir in the flour, cooking a few minutes. Turn off the heat and whisk in the milk, a little at a time, turning the heat back up when flour is well incorporated. Continue stirring til thickened, adding the herbs, salt and pepper to taste. Let it cook slowly for 10 to 15 minutes.
While your Bechamel is simmering, bring a pot of water to boil for the pasta, and cook it until just al dente. Butter a nice baking dish. Preheat your oven to 350F. As soon as the noodles are ready, drain and put 1/3 of them into the dish. Cover that with 1/3 of the cheeses, 1/3 of your onions if using, and 1/3 of any other additions . Top with 1/3 of the sauce and grate on some black pepper, and salt. Now do 2 more layers in the same way, and sprinkle the buttered breadcrumbs over the top.
Bake on a middle rack at 350 F for about 20 minutes, or til well browned and bubbly. You might think that's a lot of trouble for Mac 'n Cheese, but let me tell you, it is scarcely related. And, actually can be made very quickly, especially if you forgo the extras.
Just the thing for your tired troops. Serve with a sprightly salad and a fine Pinot Grigio, or whatever. Hard cider would go well.