Welcome to the first installment of the I'm-not-treating-you-like-an-idiot recipe series. From here on out, I'll to be walking you through recipes as though you know how to do basic things, like eyeball the amount of butter you need to use in order to caramelize a shallot. I'm not going to include specific times or measurements unless they are completely essential to the process. Most importantly, I'll be providing suggestions for how you can alter a recipe to fit your own tastes and your own pantry- because going to the grocery store after work is basically a visit to the 7th circle of Hell. Here's the key ingredient to all forthcoming recipes on this site: trust. Please trust your intellect and intuition as you cook and if you have burning questions, ask a friend, google or DM me! Okay, let's get started.
I detest making bechamel and mornay sauces. They're tedious and extremely frustrating to get wrong after you've spent your damn cash on quality dairy. I'm not saying this recipe is fool-proof, but the hardest parts are grating the cheese and keeping at eye on the casserole for the last five to ten minutes of cooking. I can handle it. You can handle it. You'll want to start out by cooking 1/2 pound short cut pasta in salted water until it is al dente. Any short cut, dried pasta will do. I used Trader Joe's capunti. Reserve 1/4 cup of your cooking water and slurry it into 1/4 teaspoon cornstarch. Think of this step as insurance against a broken sauce.
While the starchy water and pasta cool down for a minute, grate your cheese and preheat the oven to 350. You'll need one pound of cheese. At least 10 ounces and up to 12 ounces of it must be monterey jack for it's melty quality. The other 4 to 6 ounces should be something relatively firm and very flavorful, such as gruyere or sharp cheddar. Be warned: the more gruyere you add, the more likely your sauce is to break a little.
Whisk together 1 pound full fat sour cream (I'd imagine you could also use creme fraiche) with a real generous spoonful of dijon mustard (we're talking at least a Tablespoon) and a small pinch of salt. Remember that the pasta water is salty and the mustard is salty and the topping is going to be salty, so don't go too crazy. Stream in the starchy water. Here's where you have the choice to get creative. You might want to add chopped herbs or white pepper- some roasted garlic paste would be good or a spoonful of whole grain mustard. Fold in the cheese and the pasta. Bake in lightly greased, shallow dishes. For something small- say, a four ounce ramekin- start checking on it after 10 minutes. For something larger, like the 9"x7" vintage rarebit you see in these photos, start checking after 15-18 minutes. You only want the cheese to be warm and melted through and the very edges just beginning to bubble.
You totally don't have to top this pasta, but I'm a sucker for opposing textures and an opportunist for adding flavors, so I topped mine. While my pasta cooked, I caramelized a couple small shallots in a generous amount of butter with a pinch of salt, then removed them from the pan with a slotted spoon. I threw a couple handfuls of sourdough breadcrumbs into the remaining butter and moved them around until golden and crunchy. Do you have walnuts, lemon zest, fresh rosemary, chopped garlic, panko breadbrumbs or any kind of bread in your freezer? Cool, use it if it sounds good to you! I toast the topping separately because control. Need I say more? When you see your pasta sauce is just beginning to bubble on the edges, top it with the breadcrumbs and put it back in the oven for a minute or two. Let the whole kit and caboodle rest for 5-10 minutes before serving to let the sauce set a little.
Normally 1/2 a pound of pasta would only serve 3-4 people, but remember that this stuff is rich and dense and obscenely cheesy. Along with a salad (personally, I'd serve this with ever so gently blanched vegetables topped with parsley oil, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of flaky salt), I'd say this easily serves 6-8.