It’s no secret that Gratin recipes in the south of France are integral to everyday dishes. The exact nature of Gratin is baked pasta that has been covered with cheese. Now before you go and jump to conclusions, this is not the traditional Mac and Cheese. Southern dishes in France will often add cooked eggplant with peppers and plenty of cured meats as a side dish. These can include sausages, soppressata, and prosciutto mixed in.
Now, this dish is also very popular in Italy and is very likely a recipe that perhaps started in Southern Italy and migrated into French cuisine. These dishes are typically called Pasticci and have been modified within French cooking ever since 1770. Many of the baked pasta dishes include Mornay sauce which is a combination of different cheeses that are melted within a Béchamel sauce base. This is when cheddar cheese is added for making Mac and Cheese.
Ironically, on a trip to Paris in 1793, Historic president Thomas Jefferson and his personal chef and slave James Hemings discovered macaroni being sold in a French store. He brought the French recipe and the odd elbow-shaped hollow pasta back to America. His recipe used the Béchamel sauce with parmesan cheese melted and grated on top and then baked. It was served at a state dinner in 1802.
Since then, Mac and cheese had then evolved by adding cheddar sometime in the 1950s and 60s in American homes and is now a stable for traditional comfort foods.
This recipe closely follows the original French method that was popular in the late 1770s. Let’s get started!
Gratin de Macaroni
- Large saucepan
- 6-quart pasta pot
- Pasta colander/strainer
- Fine mesh strainer
- Large measuring cup
- Mixing spoon
- Slotted spoon
- Mixing whisk
- Spice grater
- Gratin or Casserole dish
- 1 Cup whole milk
- 1 Tablespoon whole butter
- 1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 1 Cup whole cream
- 2-3 Bay leaves (dried)
- Salt and pepper (to taste)
- Nutmeg (grated to taste)
- 3 Quarts whole milk
- 4 Large cloves of garlic (peeled)
- 4 Tablespoons flakey sea salt
- 1 Cup fresh grated Gruyére cheese
- 4 Tablespoons fresh chives
- White pepper (for taste)
- 12 Ounces penne pasta (dried- imported Italian brand)
- 1 Quart of ice cubes (store in the freezer until needed)
How to make your Béchamel sauce
To make this sauce you will essentially make this from scratch and add Gruyere cheese for more of a cheesy flavor. You can add as much as you like but will require no more than one-quarter cup of freshly grated cheese. This will turn your sauce into the traditional Mornay sauce.
To start you will need a large saucepan and over medium-high heat, add your one cup of whole milk. Bring this to a boil while stirring it so it doesn’t burn. Once it reaches its boiling point turn off the heat. Now you add your dried bay leaves and let them sit for 10 minutes. This will help infuse the milk with the bay leaf flavor. After this, you strain the milk into a measuring cup and remove the spent bay leaves.
The same saucepan should be cleaned and readied for completing your sauce. You now add your butter and melt this over medium heat. Once the butter is melted, add your flour and mix this until it starts turning brown for one minute. Remove the saucepan from the heat and using a whisk, you slowly pour in your boiled milk one tablespoon at a time. This is so you can allow the milk to mix into the flour and butter mixture.
Use your whisk to make sure your milk doesn’t have a chance to burn. After a minute or two, your mixture will start to thicken while you whisk it continually. After this, you can now return the saucepan to direct heat. Now you can add your sea salt and grate some nutmeg to your liking. The heat now needs to be set on low and continual stirring is advised. This will take up to 1 or 2 minutes after you add your salt and nutmeg.
To complete this mixture and see it thicken will take an additional 3-4 minutes. You can turn off the heat and allow it to cool. When this is cool enough, you add your heavy cream, one-quarter cup of grated Gruyere cheese, and coarsely ground white pepper to taste. Make sure this is mixed together well and then put your Mornay sauce off to the side.
Prepping your pasta:
This pasta is cooked using an unconventional method that was invented by French chefs and uses whole milk to boil the pasta. This method not only gives your pasta the perfect al dente texture without allowing the pasta to shrink.
Take your 6-quart pasta pot and add three quarts of fresh whole milk and your garlic over medium-high heat. Using a mixing spoon, allow the milk to reach its boiling point and then remove it from the heat. Let this sit for 10 minutes and then remove the garlic cloves using a slotted spoon. Now you can return your milk to a low simmer and add your pasta. The most common pasta used at this time was Italian penne pasta.
Your pasta will be al dente when you can easily cut it with a butter knife or at least 8 minutes of simmering. After this remove the pasta pot from the heat and add one quart of your ice cubes to stop the cooking. When your pot is cooled enough you should remove the penne by pouring out the milky water into your colander strainer that’s sitting in your kitchen sink. Make sure the pasta is totally drained by shaking it a couple times.
Now you can transfer your pasta into the large saucepan that holds your Mornay sauce. Mix it together so that all of the sauce gets into your tube-shaded pasta. Now you should preheat your oven’s broiler and put the rack no more than 3 inches from the heating element.
Baking your dish:
Set your broiler to 250F degrees and let it heat up for 5 minutes. You can now add your pasta and sauce mixture into your gratin dish. In a pinch, you can use a casserole dish if you don’t have a gratin dish at all. Add the remaining grated Gruyere cheese over the top and put this into the broiler. This should broil for 2 to 3 minutes and allow your cheese to become golden brown.
You’ll notice that the top of your pasta will also brown as the cheese melts and cooks. After this, remove from the oven using oven mitts. Place this onto your dinner table and use a serving spoon to scoop out your pasta gratin. This pasta and sauce will be warm but not hot. The cooked cheese will be nice and crispy and chewy depending on where it has been sprinkled. If you want it warmer, you can preheat your sauce beforehand.
This dish will serve up to 8 people and is not intended as a main course. This dish goes great with sausages, soppressata, and thinly sliced prosciutto. It’s traditional to add side dishes with roasted eggplant and bell peppers to top it off. Serve together in equal portions on a dinner plate and enjoy with a Pinot Noir red wine or any light-bodied red wine. Anything heavier will ruin the pasta flavor. Preferably a wine with fruity and spicy notes.