This is such an ultimate comfort food for me. So much so that I ignored the massive heat wave hitting California right now and decided that it was worth it for me to turn on my oven in my already 90 degree kitchen and bake some spicy cheesy pasta. My love of cheese trumps all! Wahaha! That love is followed very closely by my love of jalapeños, so, this dish is pretty perfect.
1 # of pasta (I used shells but you can use any pasta shape that easily captures cheesy-goodness)
3 cups shredded cheese (I used 2 cups cheddar and 1 cup raclette)
1/2 stick butter
1/3 cup half and half (or whole milk if that is what you have)
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
1-2 jalapeños, sliced
1 teaspoon dijion mustard
1/2 teaspoon white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons flour
1-1/12 cups panko breadcrumbs
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees, grab a pot, and bring some salted water to a boil. Add your pasta when ready. You are going to want to cook it until it is a little before al dente (with some nice toothiness to it) because it will finish cooking while baking in the oven. When it is done, strain and set aside.
Now you are going to make a roux...well, sort of. A roux is a combination of a type of fat (butter, oil, lard) combined with flour to create a thickening agent. The reasoning you combine these two is it prevents the flour from lumping. You can also "cook" the flour to the right doneness by darkening the roux which changes the flavor of your dish. We are breaking the rules a little bit here by adding onions and garlic but I won't tell if you don't.
Chop up the onions and garlic into a small dice and add them to a pan with olive oil and butter. The reason we are adding olive oil is to raise the cooking temperature of the butter, which is relatively low. We don't want it to burn. Add enough olive oil to lightly coat the onions in the bottom of the pan and add 1/2 stick of butter.
Stir this over medium heat until the butter has melted and starts to bubble. Then add 3 tablespoons flour and continue to stir.
When the flour has dissolved, add the grated cheese and turn the heat down to very low.
While this melting magic is happening, whisk together an egg and the half and half then slowly add this to mixture as well. Turn off the heat in the pan.
Add the dijon mustard and white wine vinegar (this adds a nice acidic kick). Then stir in half of the jalapeño slices.
At this point you are going to want to taste the mixture and adjust seasonings accordingly. I ended up adding some salt and a little black pepper, but you might not want to add salt depending on your choice of cheese.
And then maybe test it a few more times to make sure... Okay! When it is perfect (and by perfect I mean a little over-seasoned because you need to compensate for all of the pasta you are about the throw in), add the pasta and stir. I added the pasta in stages to make it a little easier on myself. When all of the pasta is added, top with the rest of your jalapeños.
Then add some breadcrumbs.
Chuck everything in the oven at 375 degrees. If you are like me and accidentally overcooked your pasta, you can throw it under the broiler to get those breadcrumbs toasty with over-baking the whole dish. Otherwise, just keep an eye on it until it is bubbly and brown.
To make this dish more kid-friendly, you can substitute the jalapeños for bell peppers or some milder sweet peppers like a sweet cherry pepper. If you want to get CRAZY and go spicy you could use a banana, serrano, or habañero pepper. If you want a smoky flavor, go for a chipotle pepper, which is actually not its own variety but rather a smoked jalapeño. Enjoy!