This mac-and-cheese bake deserves more than side status
Ann Vernon comes from a clan of gourmands who love to experiment with flavor and regularly refine their family recipes. So, when she tells you there’s one recipe no one will change, you know it must be delicious.
Like many other families, the favorite is macaroni and cheese. But unlike other recipes, this mac and cheese with ham guarantees a decadent dish that deserves to be center stage and not just a side.
“I was disappointed with traditional bechamel-based sauces as they often dry out in baking,” Vernon said. “I wanted to make a mac and cheese that was rich and creamy.”
Drawing on her Southern roots, Vernon thought: Why use one cheese when five would be better, and how about a sauce with sour cream, half-and-half and cottage cheese? She threw in some holiday ham and made a crunchy topping of cornflakes spiked with cayenne and created a new family classic.
The family enjoys it with black-eyed peas, cornbread and slaw, she said.
“I only make it once or twice a year because it’s kind of deadly on your cardiac system,” she jokes.
Vernon, who is mayor pro tem of the city of El Lago, has lived in Houston all her adult life but was born in New Orleans and moved around Louisiana and Texas a fair bit because her father worked for Shell Oil. She learned to cook from her Southern mother who was renowned for her culinary skills, she said.
“My mom was a fantastic cook, really stand-alone,” Vernon said. “It wasn’t your usual home-cooking as she grew her own herbs, made her own salad dressings from scratch, and made her own rubs for barbecued meat. It was always special.”
Vernon continues this “fresh is best” ethos, growing her own salad greens, using fresh bay leaves instead of dried, and grating her own nutmeg when the spice is needed. She recommends using fresh blocks of cheese for the dish because blocks of cheese have more flavor than pre-grated cheese and doesn’t contain added starch. The combination of cheddar, smoked Gouda and Gruyère is a winner, but at a pinch of normal Gouda will do.
Her mother gave Vernon a collection of recipes on 100 pages, all hand-typed. Vernon plans to do the same for her grown children. They also love to cook and experiment with flavor and fresh ingredients, although they insist the cheese-and-ham-bake stays the same.
“Now, if it was up to me, I might throw in some sun-dried tomatoes, but they won’t let me.”
Ann’s Rich and Creamy Five-Cheese Ham & Mac Bake
12 ounces trottole, penne or macaroni pasta
4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese (freshly grated)
4 ounces smoked Gouda (freshly grated)
4 ounces Gruyère cheese (freshly grated)
8 ounces small curd cottage cheese
8 ounces sour cream
½ cup half-and-half
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
8 ounces cooked ham, cut into ½-inch cubes
½ teaspoon freshly grated black pepper
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
½ cup cornflake crumbs (if making your own, use unsweetened cornflakes)
1⁄8 teaspoon ground cayenne
2 tablespoons melted butter
Cook pasta in heavily salted boiling water according to directions until al dente. Drain and set aside.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly butter a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish and set aside.
Grate the cheddar, Gruyère and Gouda cheeses. In a large bowl, mix together the cheddar and Gruyère and Gouda cheeses, cottage cheese, sour cream, half-and-half, ham, cayenne, black pepper and salt to taste (Because cheese already is salty, Vernon uses only about ½ teaspoon).
Gently mix in the pasta noodles, being careful to not mush or tear up the noodles. Pour mixture into the prepared baking dish and lightly pat down to even out the top slightly.
Grate the Parmesan cheese and then mix with the cornflake crumbs, ¼ teaspoon cayenne and melted butter. Sprinkle all of the topping on casserole. Lightly cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes, uncover and continue to bake until hot and bubbly throughout and the top is golden brown, about 10 to 15 more minutes. You can double this recipe for a crowd.