Recipe Sleuth: Firefly’s Macaroni and Three Cheeses

This warming recipe is perfect for the sudden drop in temperature.

Photograph by Chris Leaman.

Macaroni and cheese appears twice on Firefly’s Southern-inflected menu: as a lunch entrée with shrimp and bacon and as a dinnertime side starring three cheeses. Although the former sounds more luxurious, chef Danny Bortnick’s Macaroni and Three Cheeses isn’t as humble as it sounds. The flavor comes from a nutty aged Gruyère, creamy Vermont cheddar, and olive-oil-washed Parmesan.

Successfully recreating Bortnick’s side begins with high-quality cheese—he suggests visiting Cowgirl Creamery in Penn Quarter. Bortnick also advises allowing the noodles to air-dry after cooking, because additional rinsing washes away the gluten that helps the cheese sauce stick.

So which mac and cheese would Bortnick pick if forced to choose between the shrimp and three-cheese versions?

“That’s a tough call, but I’m a purist at heart,” he says.

Firefly’s Macaroni and Three Cheeses

Serves 4 to 6

Make the cheese sauce:

Makes 2½ cups

¼ cup butter (½ stick)
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
½ cup half-and-half
1 cup shredded cheddar (Bortnick likes white Cabot, aged one year)
1 cup shredded Gruyère cheese (Bortnick prefers Roth Käse Gruyère Surchoix)
1 teaspoon salt
1⁄8 teaspoon cayenne
1⁄8 teaspoon garlic powder

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan set over medium heat. Add the flour and mix well to make a roux—it should be the consistency of paste and have a pale color—but don’t let it brown. Add the milk and half-and-half and whisk until thick, about 20 minutes. Stir in the cheeses, and when they’re melted, stir in the salt, cayenne, and garlic powder. Mix until thoroughly combined and set aside.

Make the macaroni:

3 quarts water
2 tablespoons salt
¼ box (1½ cups) dry macaroni (Bortnick prefers DeCecco brand)
2½ cups cheese sauce (recipe above)
½ cup grated Parmesan (Bortnick uses Sarvecchio Parmesan)    

Preheat the broiler.

In a large pot, bring the water and salt to a boil. Add the macaroni and boil until al dente. Strain the pasta, but don’t rinse it. Return it to the pot and add the cheese sauce. Mix well and place into individual cast-iron pans. Sprinkle a thin layer of Parmesan on top and broil until browned and crusty.

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Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.