Vidalia chef/owner Jeff Buben has experimented with lots of macaroni-and-cheese recipes since the restaurant opened in the early ‘90s, but he and chef RJ Cooper didn’t settle on one until 2½ years ago. Since then, this version laden with creamy Mornay sauce has been a staple at the restaurant—Cooper takes it off the menu only in July or August because he feels the creamy side dish is too heavy for summer. The reader who requested the recipe isn’t the only fan: Cooper says he sends out about 40 orders on a Saturday night.
It’s crucial to make sure the cream doesn’t boil or scorch, Cooper says. Otherwise, “you’ll just taste burnt flour.” He also suggests trying fillings other than smoked ham—good options are lobster, crayfish, and this time of year, black or white truffles.
Serves 8 to 10 people
For the Mornay sauce:
4 tablespoons sweet, unsalted butter
1 cup small-diced sweet onions
2 tablespoons slivered garlic
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs thyme
1 sprig rosemary
½ cup unbleached flour
1 quart heavy cream
1 pint half and half
2 teaspoons Colman’s mustard powder
2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1½ cups grated cave-aged goat cheddar (available at Whole Foods, or you can also substitute any sharp white cheddar), divided
1 cup goat-cheese curd (available at Whole Foods), divided
Sea salt and pepper to taste
Make a béchamel sauce: Using a heavy-bottom sauce pot set over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onions and garlic, and sweat until translucent. Using a piece of cheese cloth or a coffee filter, make a sachet with the bay leaf, thyme, and rosemary. Add the sachet to the onion mixture, sift the flour over the mixture, and slow cook while stirring for approximately 5 minutes. Add the cream and half and half, and simmer for 20 minutes or until thick. The béchamel should not boil and should be stirred throughout the process.
Remove the sachet from the pot, and let the béchamel cool for 10 minutes. Add half of the béchamel to the pitcher of a blender. Season with salt, pepper, half of the mustard powder, nutmeg, and cayenne pepper. Blend on medium speed. Halfway through the process, add half of the cheddar and half of the cheese curds. Blend until smooth, taste to adjust seasonings, add pass through a fine mesh sieve. Repeat the process, reserve and keep warm.
For the macaroni:
1 pound elbow macaroni, fresh or boxed
1 cup grated Ritz crackers
1½ cups small-diced smoked country ham
1 cup grated cave-aged goat cheddar
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Set up a pot of boiling, salted water and cook the macaroni until it’s al dente. Strain and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl combine the Mornay sauce, ham, and goat cheddar. Thoroughly mix in the macaroni. Pour the mixture into a baking dish and top with the Ritz crackers. Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Remove and serve.
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