Fall is a great time for comforting dishes. It's hard to beat the combination of fresh apples and good cheese. The alchemy of the creamy and nutty cheese, bright sweet apple, and rich golden onions elevates this dish from standard comfort food to the sublime. I have never seen gouda or swiss for more than $12 a pound, and cheddar is usually $8 per pound or less around here; I spent under $10 for the cheese in this dish. The pasta costs about $2, and making this dish costs less than $20.
This recipe specifically calls for California cheese due to the guidelines posted here.
1 lb Barilla plus elbow pasta
1/2 lb California cheddar, any variety you prefer (I like to use white for this dish)
1/4 lb California gouda
1/4 lb California swiss (try to find a firm, nutty variety)
1 medium fuji apple
1 medium yellow onion
4-5 T butter
1 C apple cider, preferably fresh from a local orchard
1 1/2 C local milk, 2% or whole
1/4 C unbleached all purpose flour
1/2 t dried thyme
whole nutmeg (you won't use the whole thing)
For those of you who say "eewwwwwww sweet fruit with macaroni and cheese? Gross!"
– don't knock it until you try it.
Step 1: Cook Pasta
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add pasta. Barilla Plus pasta has a lovely nutty taste, a firm texture, and added nutritional benefits. It does come in 14.5 oz packages, so you'll want to add a little more than one package. Cook macaroni until firm al dente. Pour into a colander to drain water, return to pot, and set aside.
I neglected to take pictures of a pot of boiling water or cooking pasta. Sorry.
Step 2: Prepare and Cook Onions and Apples
While the water is heating and the pasta is boiling, melt 4 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Peel and slice the onion into thin quarter circles (or smaller pieces). Add the onion to the melted butter. Sprinkle on a teaspoon of salt. Salt helps draw moisture out of the cells. Stir occasionally and cook until onions are a rich golden brown.
While onions are cooking, peel, core, and grate the apple. Add the apple to the onions when the onions are brown enough for your liking. Cook the apple with the onion until the apple is softened and most of the water evaporated.
Step 3: Make Cheese Sauce
Shred the cheese; set aside half of the cheddar. Mix the rest of the cheese in a bowl.
Sprinkle the flour into the pan with the apple and onion while stirring. If needed, add another tablespoon of butter to incorporate all the flour. You don't want lumps. Keep stirring until everything is mixed well and you see no white powdery flour. Add the apple cider and stir well. The mixture should thicken quickly as it heats up. When smooth, stir in the milk. Keep stirring and cook until bubbles form. Turn off the heat.
Add the mixed cheese, one handful at a time, stirring after each addition until the cheese melts and the sauce is smooth. Grind in some black pepper, grate on about 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg, and crush the thyme in your hand before adding to the sauce. Taste the sauce and see if it needs salt. Add salt if needed. Stir the sauce thoroughly. Taste it again, for good measure. Mmmmmm cheese...
Step 4: Put It Together
If you prefer your macaroni baked, pour the macaroni and cheese into a greased pan, top with remaining cheddar, and set under a broiler until cheese is melted and golden. If you don't like it baked, stir the remaining cheddar into the macaroni and cheese.
You might want to serve this with some vegetables and fruit; it's a bit rich.