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Mac and cheese gets an upgrade with wine-braised fennel

Mac and cheese gets an elegant upgrade with braised fennel, Swiss and chunks of ham.  (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Mac and cheese gets an elegant upgrade with braised fennel, Swiss and chunks of ham. (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
By Gretchen McKay Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It’s difficult to go wrong with macaroni and cheese. A staple comfort food, its cheesy goodness is loved by kids and adults alike for lunch, dinner or a late-night snack. Even the blue-box variety can hit the spot. But to really take it to the next level, you should go all out with a rich and homemade cheese sauce.

This recipe gets an elegant upgrade with the addition of fennel, an aromatic veggie with a licorice-like flavor and crunch that reminds of celery. It gets a quick braise in Marsala wine, which makes it sweet, and the leftover cooking liquid is then used to make the creamy sauce with mascarpone and Swiss cheese instead of the traditional cheddar.

Diced ham steak – leftovers from an Easter ham – make the dish even more of a hearty keeper. The original recipe calls for making the macaroni and cheese in a buttered casserole dish, but I made it a one-pot meal by combining everything in the 12-inch cast iron skillet used to make the cheese sauce.

I also used shredded Swiss instead of the recommended grated Gruyère. Don’t skimp on the panko-and-Parmesan topping: It adds a delicious crunch to this oh-so-comforting dish.

Campanelle gratin with ham and braised fennel

For fennel:

6 cups water

4 small fennel bulbs, sliced

1/4 cup sweet Marsala wine

2 fresh bay leaves

1 tablespoon kosher salt

For sauce

1/4 cup unsalted butter

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 cups cooking liquid from braised fennel

1 8-ounce container mascarpone

1 cup grated Swiss cheese

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

For assembly

1 tablespoon kosher salt

8 ounces dried campanelle pasta

6 ounces ham steak, cut into 1/2-inch dice

1/2 cup panko bread crumbs

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Place the water, fennel, Marsala, bay leaves and salt in a 4-quart saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the fennel is tender, about 15 minutes. Strain, reserving 2 cups of cooking liquid. Set the braised fennel aside.

In a large cast-iron skillet, prepare the sauce. Melt the butter in pan over medium-low heat. Add the flour and stir until fragrant and golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Whisk in the reserved fennel liquid. Bring the mix to a boil and cook until thickened, 5 to 8 minutes. Add the mascarpone, Swiss, salt and pepper, then stir.

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. Bring a large pot of water seasoned with 1 tablespoon of salt to a boil. Add the pasta and only partially cook for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally (it will continue cooking in the oven). Drain the pasta.

Mix the pasta with the braised fennel and ham in the skillet with the cheese sauce. Stir to combine, making sure all the pasta is coated in the sauce. Cover with panko and Parmesan, then drizzle with the oil. Bake until the top is golden brown and the pasta is bubbling, 35 to 40 minutes

Serve hot.

Yield: 6 servings

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