This dish is perfect for a date night or intimate gathering. There’s something about baked pasta dishes, the gooey cheese, the crisp breadcrumb topping, the way it bubbles when it’s done, that makes it the ultimate comfort food. The half bottle of wine while it bakes in the oven doesn’t hurt either. But by simply playing around with your cheeses, you can take your standard pasta dish and turn it into something elegant and impressive.  In this recipe, milder cheeses like white cheddar and fontina are paired with blue cheese for a slight piquant bite. Served alongside an arugula salad dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, and honey, this recipe is perfect for an elegant, but cozy at-home-meal.

Ingredients (Serves 4)

3 cups medium sized shells

2 cups Milk (2%)

3/4 cup Fontina Cheese (grated)

3/4 cup White Cheddar Cheese (grated)

1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese

1 cup seasoned breadcrumbs

1 clove garlic (grated)

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons butter

For Topping:

1/4 stick butter

1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese

1/4 cup shredded fontina cheese

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Ingredients for Breadcrumb topping:

2 slices white bread

1 teaspoon dried herbs (oregano, parsley, whatever you have)

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese (store-bought is fine)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

Method

Prepare dish by grating cheeses and setting aside. Grate one clove of garlic and set aside for later use.  Slice bread into large cubes and place in the bottom of a food processor. Buzz until finely chopped. Next, add herbs, seasonings, and cheese, and pulse to combine. Set aside in a bowl for later use.

Once prep work is completed, pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.  Next, bring 6-7 cups of  water to a boil in a large pot. Season with 3-4 teaspoons salt. Then add pasta and cook until firm to the tooth, about ten-twelve minutes, checking in between. Drain pasta and set aside. In a separate pot, over medium heat, combine butter and flour to make a roux, stirring until well incorporated. Cook for 1-2 minutes or until flour has cooked. Then add two cups of milk and simmer until roux has completely dissolved. Add grated garlic and stir, then add all of the cheeses and combine until they’ve begun to melt into the sauce. Season with 1 and 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Don’t let sauce thicken too much, this dish requires a thinner sauce. Fold in the pasta and combine.

Pour pasta into an 8×8 baking dish, and top with 1/4 cup fontina, 1/4 cup blue cheese, and 1/4 cup parmesan. Then add the seasoned bread crumbs. Take 1/4 stick of butter and cut into small cubes to dot over the top of the bread crumbs. This will help them brown. Now place on top of center rack in oven and bake until the top is browned and bubbling.

Arugula Salad:

3-4 cups Arugula

1/4 cup chopped walnuts

1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese

olive oil

fresh lemon juice

honey

kosher salt and pepper

Method:

Drizzle leaves with olive oil, then season well with kosher salt and pepper. Squeeze juice of about 1/2 lemon. Add walnuts and blue cheese. Then drizzle liberally with honey and toss to combine. Enjoy!

Note: For a more elegant presentation, divide pasta equally into individual gratin dishes instead of baking tray, then add toppings and breadcrumbs and bake as usual.

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