browned and bubbly

the original title of this recipe is “macaroni and cheese,” but i think my expectations would have fared better if it were named some sort of casserole instead.  my friend and i have a history of dissatisfaction with mac and cheese recipes: the end result is never cheesy enough, the sauce never saucy enough.  so to assuage my food neuroses, let’s just call this ham & tomato casserole.  because as casseroles go, this one’s good.

it is simple: pasta in a creamy white sauce; bits of smoky ham; juicy, sweet chunks of tomato; some bread crumbs thrown on top for crunch.  in fact, as i glanced at the photocopy of the recipe, wandering about the grocery store to pick up the ingredients, i had serious doubts about its simplicity, about whether this dish would pack enough flavor.  no minced onion to sauté?  no garlic?  not even
seasoned bread crumbs to go on top?  apparently i feel safer when a recipe tells me to gild the lily.

but no: this recipe – as it is – is good.  the way chocolate syrup in a glass of milk is good.  the way sleeping in is good.  the way a letter in the mail is good.

i’m trying to think of a way i might adapt the recipe the next time i make it (which will probably be later tonight, since my brother and dad attacked the pan not long after i took it out of the oven – which i will take as a compliment), but i can’t think of anything.  the flavors remind me of the croque madame i had at dusty’s, perhaps the best breakfast sandwich i have ever stuck a fork to.  the ham brings just enough saltiness to the mild cheese sauce; the browned bread crumbs provide a crisp complement to the creaminess; and the tomatoes are just genius in a dish like this – bright both in color and taste, a juicy spot in just the right places.

Ham & Cheese Casserole
Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser, who adapted her grandmother’s recipe
Makes 4 servings

2 Tbsp. butter, plus more for buttering dish
2 Tbsp. flour
2 cups milk
1 ½ cups grated Monterey Jack cheese, plus more for sprinkling (This took me a little less than half a pound.)
3 ½ cups cooked elbow macaroni (I boiled about 8 oz. of fusilli.)
1 cup small cubes roasted country ham (Thick-sliced ham is hard to find around here, so I made do with several slices of black forest ham, cut into small pieces.)
1 cup canned Italian plum tomatoes, drained (reserve the juice)
¾ cup coarse breadcrumbs (made from stale bread cut into little cubes)
Freshly ground black pepper (Don’t skip this, please; it’s important.)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Butter a casserole dish.
  2. In a saucepan, heat the 2 tablespoons butter until foamy.  Sprinkle in the flour and whisk until it turns golden, then slowly pour in the milk, continuing to whisk.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat and let it thicken.  Stir in the cheese and removed from the heat.  It should be a loose sauce.
  3. Fold in the macaroni, then ham.  Add tomatoes by squeezing them between your fingers into small pieces.  Taste and fix accordingly.  The mixture should be loose like a thin batter; if it’s glue-y and thick, add a little milk or drained tomato juice.
  4. Pour into the casserole dish.  Spread breadcrumbs over the surface and then sprinkle with about ¼ cup cheese.  Grind pepper over top.  Bake until browned on the top and bubbling, about 25 minutes.

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