When I took my first bite of this Belgian Fondue Mac and Cheese, it immediately took me back in time to a day I spent in Belgium when I was working for a company based there …
It was a cold and overcast day in Brussels when a friend and I decided to make the drive out to Bruges, one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Despite the gray skies and brisk winds, we wandered through the streets, across the bridges, and into the town center. When we got too cold we stopped into a small café to warm up. And that is when I had the best cheese fondue of my life – luscious morsels of homemade bread dipped into wine infused hot melted cheese. One bite after another, until the pot was empty and we had polished off all the bread.
As we sat at the table warmed by the fire with our tummies full, it began to snow. Large white flakes drifting past the windows as we sipped our wine and talked about our day. It was a fairytale moment in time, a lifetime ago and yet the memory of images and flavors feel like it was just a couple of months ago. That is the power of food – and the perfect setting!
Today’s recipe is a tribute to that day in Bruges, with the flavors of white wine and a blend of four cheeses to create a more elegant version of mac and cheese.
While watching an episode of “The Chew”, Chef Michael Symon made his version of cheese fondue. As the hosts dipped into the creamy, cheesy goodness, I thought, “how fantastic would that be if it was combined with pasta and baked.” So I developed a new recipe that combines the technique I borrowed from Chef Symon with the flavors of the Bruges fondue to create an indulgent cheesy casserole. And I have to tell you – this one hit it out of the proverbial park.
The beauty of this recipe is that unlike most cheese sauces, there is no Bechamel sauce required making it naturally gluten-free. Chef Symon tosses his shredded cheese with a little cornstarch (you could use arrowroot if you can’t have corn products) and then adds it to a simmering wine and shallot mixture. The cornstarch thickens the wine and then the cheese melts and suddenly you have a luscious, creamy gluten-free cheese sauce. Miracles happen every day!
I wanted to use the Gruyere cheese that is the most common base for fondue, but I also wanted to add some others to boost the creaminess factor and smooth out the flavors. I wound up with a combination of Gruyere, cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Havarti that worked beautifully.
The cheesy pasta smelled amazing as I was making it and The Artist kept coming into the kitchen asking when it was going to be ready. That is always a good sign, LOL. It proved to be just as good as it smelled and we both inhaled our portions.
When you want something that will appeal to the adults in your crowd (or if you have adventurous kids), make this Belgian Fondue Mac and Cheese. It is good old-fashioned comfort food, elevated to an exceptional elegance.
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
I made two versions of this recipe, one with breadcrumbs and the other without (using smaller baking pans). Both were delicious, but I liked the crunch that the breadcrumbs added. If you are making this ahead, bake it without the breadcrumbs and add them when you reheat the casserole.
The cornstarch is your thickener, so there is no gluten to worry about in the sauce. Buy the best quality gluten-free pasta that you can afford – it will hold up better to the heavy cheese sauce. Also, remember that the pasta will finish cooking in the oven, so don’t cook it all the way through before combining with the cheese sauce. Add a little extra water if you have already cooked the casserole and are reheating the pasta and sauce.
See NOTE in the recipe below for more guidance in using GF pasta for this dish.
- Cheese Sauce
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 small white onion, trimmed, peeled, and finely minced
- 1 cup dry white wine, dry vermouth, or chicken stock
- 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
- 10 oz Gruyere cheese, grated
- 6 oz medium-sharp cheddar or white cheddar cheese, grated
- 5 oz Monterey Jack cheese, grated
- 5 oz Havarti, grated
- 4 tsp cornstarch
- 1/2 tsp kosher or sea salt, or to taste
- 1/4 tsp ground white pepper
- 1 tsp Dijon or spicy brown mustard
- 1 lb (16 oz) penne, ziti, rotini, or similar pasta (gluten-free if needed*)
- 1 tsp kosher or sea salt
- 1/2 cup grated or shredded Parmesan cheese
- Buttered breadcrumbs, optional (gluten-free if needed)
- Chopped fresh parsley or green onions, or more fresh thyme leaves, for garnish
- Lightly butter a large 3- to 4-quart baking dish, such as a deep 9x13-inch pan or something similar.
- Make the Cheese Sauce: While the pasta is cooking, make the cheese sauce. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and oil over medium heat. When the butter is melted and starting to bubble, add the onions and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the wine and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Lower the heat to medium and cook for 2 to 3 minutes until slightly reduced. Stir in the thyme.
- While the wine mixture is simmering, in a medium bowl, place the grated cheese and sprinkle it with the cornstarch. Using your hands, toss the cheese to evenly coat it with the cornstarch. This will help thicken the mixture without using flour and give a creamier mouthfeel.
- While whisking the wine mixture, add the cheese one handful at a time, waiting until it is mostly melted before adding more. Whisk constantly until all of the cheese is melted. Remove from the heat.
- Season the cheese sauce with salt and pepper to taste, and stir in the mustard. Whisk until thoroughly incorporated and smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add some of the reserved pasta water to thin the sauce slightly if it is needed. Keep warm over very low heat.
- Prepare the Pasta: In a large stockpot filled 3/4 with water, bring to a boil over high heat. Add the salt and stir until dissolved. Stir in the pasta and cook until al dente, stirring occasionally, following the suggested times on the package. Before draining, scoop out 1 cup of the cooking water and reserve.
- Drain the pasta in a colander, shaking to remove excess water. Transfer to a very large mixing bowl. Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta and toss until completely coated. If the sauce is too thick, add a little more pasta water - remember that pasta tends to absorb liquid from sauces, so you always want it a little soupier than you think it should be.
- Pour the cheese and pasta into the prepared baking dish. Evenly sprinkle the Parmesan over the top of the casserole. If using, sprinkle the buttered breadcrumbs over the top.
- Brown the Casserole: Move a rack to the top part of the oven and preheat the broiler on high for about 5 minutes. Place the casserole in the oven and cook until the top of the casserole is browned and bubbling, 3 minutes. Time will depend on the strength of your broiler and how far the rack is from the heating element.
- To Serve: Sprinkle the casserole with chopped green onions, parsley, or more fresh thyme. Scoop servings into individual bowls and serve hot.
- Yield: about 6 to 8 servings
- *Because gluten-free pasta does not hold up as well as traditional wheat pasta, if you make this casserole with gluten-free pasta, I recommend you only make as much pasta as you will eat at one meal. If you do have leftovers, it is still delicious, but the texture will be different. You can hold the cheese sauce in the fridge, reheat gently over low heat and combine with freshly boiled pasta for the best texture with gluten-free pasta.
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