On the Side: Baked Penne with Farmhouse Cheddar & Leeks

I’m always confused by recipe ratings on cooking sites. Depending on what sites you frequent, the ratings aren’t always based on results of the recipe, but on a variety of criteria that has eluded me thus far. Comments should be guides and helpful tips given by those who have gone before, as if their experiences should be rolled up and set adrift in the proverbial bottle for the next intrepid cook to find.

But they aren’t. Why else would Paula Deen’s Deep Fried Balls of Butter have 3 out of 5 stars? Not because they deep fried up some butter and stuck it on a clump of pasta, but because people love Paula. That’s fine and all, but recipe comments and ratings in general have become victims of abuse and are painful to wade through in order to find out whether or not a dish is worth cooking. I have grown wary of comments and ratings on other sites as well, using them only as guidelines.

Baked Penne with Farmhouse Cheddar & Leeks - BA
Photo courtesy of Bon Appetit

I attacked Bon Appetit’s February 28 Recipe of the Day, Baked Penne with Farmhouse Cheddar and Leeks, with the same wariness as I do everything else, wading through the mess of comments and criticism — it seemed to me there was mostly complaining about the texture, though the recipe was receiving good reviews. To me, that could have meant anything.

The comments were mostly around the cheese texture becoming more “curdled” in the oven, like cottage cheese. Everyone had their own idea of how to avoid that happening, and I was pretty sure the problem was with the eggs, but I had to be somewhat true to the recipe and do it mostly as was written before messing with it.

If you’re going to make this with eggs, do as the recipe says and let the dish sit until it cools down to room temperature before putting it into the oven. I was making this on a weeknight so, you know I didn’t have time for that. Cutting corners meant botching up the egg. Next time I will omit the egg. To be honest, I don’t think it made that much of a difference taste wise, especially if I’m not willing to take the time and let everything rest for as long as it needs. I did whisk the egg early and let it sit out so it could warm up to room temperature before whisking my cup of cheese mixture in, but I didn’t let everything rest at room temperature, and that ultimately did effect the texture of the dish, though not the taste.

My version did get the curdled texture other reviewers complained about, but the taste was good. Something else came to mind about it, and that’s how the dish was baked at 400 degrees F. Next time, I’m going to lower the temperature to 350 and bake them in individual ramekins. I don’t think it’s meant to be the overly creamy mac & cheese of childhood; it’s a more sophisticated version with a sauce that sticks to the penne, rather than running all over the plate.

Other changes: I used low fat milk (1%) so mine was automatically going to lack some of the creaminess that was intended, but I was willing to sacrifice that for lower fat content — let’s face it; my butt’s not going to get smaller on its own.

To serve my household, I cut the original recipe in half, and ended up having enough to spread between three or four people. When I served it up, it was a side dish, paired alongside ATK’s Crispy Garlic Chicken Cutlets. There’s just something great about a good, breaded chicken breast and mac & cheese on a plate that I love.

Baked Penne with Farmhouse Cheddar & Leeks
Adapted from Bon Appetit

2 Tablespoons butter
2 leeks, chopped
1/8 cup all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups low fat milk
2 1/4 cups (packed) extra-sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1 large egg
1/2 pound penne pasta

Diced Leeks

Lightly butter a small baking dish. Melt butter in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add leeks; stir to coat. Cover saucepan and cook until leeks are tender, stirring occasionally, about 12 minutes (do not brown). Uncover saucepan; add flour. Stir 2 minutes.

I love leeks and the aroma they give off while simmering. They’re like onions, but without the sting.

Sauteeing Leeks in Butter

Add milk; bring to simmer, stirring often. Add cheese, mustard, and pepper sauce. Stir until cheese melts. Remove from heat. Season cheese sauce to taste with salt.

Adding Cheddar Cheese

Melted Cheese

Whisk eggs in medium bowl. Gradually whisk in 1 cup cheese sauce. Stir egg mixture into cheese sauce in saucepan.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain. Return to pot.

Stir cheese sauce into pasta in pot. Transfer to prepared baking dish. do ahead Can be made 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Bake pasta until cheese sauce is bubbling around edges and some ends of pasta are golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes.

Baked Penne with Farmhouse Cheddar and Leeks

Let stand 15 minutes. Serve hot.

In the end this was a nice little side dish, light with a little zip from the dijon, hot sauce and leeks, but I’ve had better, richer macaroni and cheeses. It was tasty, but not what I’d consider the definitive. It all depends on what you prefer for a mac and cheese. This was perfect alongside a chicken breast, and didn’t dominate anything on the plate. It was just comforting and tasty. I’d make it again with changes. As for a weeknight dish, it works well if you’re going to pop this in the oven to bake while you make the main course on the stove top. I had enough time to clean up the kitchen between dishes, so I could start on the main dish.

Weeknight Cooking: B+
Overall Dish: B

One thought on “On the Side: Baked Penne with Farmhouse Cheddar & Leeks

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s