We bet you wouldn’t think of blueberries in Mac ‘n’ Cheese, would you? Well, we did. And, not only did we think of it, we made it! After all, we figured it was only one meal, so why not? It might be great. Even if it’s something we don’t care for, we might get an idea for another meal, or perhaps a way we could change it up to make it better next time, or we might learn something that we’ll be able to use in the future. All those possibilities from one little dish. Who wouldn’t want to scratch it up?
One of the stores around here was having a sale on blueberries, so we picked up a few cartons. When we picked up the package and saw they were from Chile, we almost put them back. We suspected that, having traveled all that way, the blueberries would be tired, and it would be reflected in the flavor (we were right), but the idea of making the best ever blueberry muffins, using Thomas Keller’s recipe pushed us over the edge (they were heavenly, even though the blueberries were somewhat lacking).
First off, we’re going to tell you something we learned from the original idea for the recipe. We made our topping using flour instead of bread crumbs. Do not make this mistake and do the same. It will taste floury, which is not what you want. We had hoped that it would work something like struesel topping and crisp up. We were wrong. We used brie, thinking it would melt well, but it really didn’t. Even so, the taste of the brie made up for it. We don’t think we’d use another kind of berry in this. Blueberries seem, to us at least, one of the few berries that works in savory dishes.
Procedure in detail:
Make topping. Place the cashews in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the nuts are coarsely ground, about ten 1-second pulses. Add bread crumbs and salt, and pulse once or twice to combine. Finally, add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles corn meal. Set aside.
Boil pasta. Bring a kettle of salted water to a boil and cook pasta according to the directions, stopping before the pasta is completely cooked. You don’t want the pasta turning to mush in the oven, where it’ll be cooking a bit more, so it can be undercooked now. Drain and set aside to cool.
Toss in blueberries. Once cooled — so the berries don’t burst — transfer the pasta to a 1 1/2 quart baking dish. Add the basil and blueberries and gently toss to mix. Again, you don’t want to break the blueberries, not that it would be a disaster, but we think it’ll be nicer with little blueberry pockets in the mac ‘n’ cheese.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Make a roux. You can use the same kettle that you used for boiling the pasta — no need even to wash it. Melt the butter in the kettle over medium heat. Once melted, stir in the flour to make a paste and cook that paste, stirring all the time, until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Ten minutes is the important thing to remember, because you need to cook the flour at least that long — either now, or after we’ve added milk, or a combination of the two — to eliminate the raw flour taste.
Add milk. Add the milk in three additions, stirring, or better yet, whisking, all the while. The three additions and the whisking are used to avoid getting lumps in the sauce. Bring to a slow, low, boil so the mixture will thicken, then, stirring all the while, cook the sauce about 5 minutes.
Add cheese. Stir in the cheeses and continue cooking on low until the Cheddar melts and gets incorporated. The Brie might not melt into the sauce; ours didn’t, but it’s not a big deal. You’ll just have little pockets of brie in your mac ‘n’ cheese, which can be a good thing.
Stir into pasta. Gently stir the cheese sauce into the pasta. Again, we’re just trying to be careful about the berries. Sure, we know that they’ll burst while baking, but that’ll leave spots of blueberry flavor, not distribute it throughout the dish.
Top. Remember the topping? Now’s the time to spoon it over the top of the mac ‘n’ cheese. There should be enough to coat the entire surface, hopefully providing a nice crunch in every bite.
Bake. Slide into the oven and bake until crusty and bubbly, about 40 to 50 minutes.
One of us really liked this version of mac ‘n’ cheese, and was even willing to give it five stars — it is mac ‘n’ cheese, so it’s not as if it doesn’t taste great — but the other was a bit more circumspect, and found fault in the crumb topping (remember that we made ours with flour and not bread crumbs — a mistake that we’ve remedied in this recipe) and was disappointed with the lack of blueberry and basil flavor. That might be because of our flavorless blueberries from Chile. In a compromise, we decided to go with four stars.