On a recent Sunday, I was invited to a friend's house for barbecue -- and mac 'n' cheese. Not just any mac 'n' cheese, but Cowgirl Creamery's oozing, rich version from its new book, "Cowgirl Creamery Cooks" (Chronicle Books, $35).
Forget the ribs: That mac n' cheese is killer. Cowgirls Sue Conley and Peggy Smith make it with their own Wagon Wheel cheese and the wheel-shaped pasta called rotelle. It's a showstopper when it comes to the table: bubbling, with tomato slices and buttered bread crumbs on top.
A delight through and through, the new cookbook is unpretentious, sensible and full of both classic and quirky recipes. Looking for a way to use up leftover cheese? Head straight to the "End Bits" chapter, where you'll find not only the mac n' cheese recipe but also tips for making great grilled cheese sandwiches and half a dozen other recipes, plus Sidekick Tomato Soup.
Browsing through "Cowgirl Creamery Cooks," I find so many appealing ways to use cheese. I'd forgotten how much I like a compound butter slathered over a steak until I came across the recipe for blue cheese butter on grilled rib-eye. Or how about using a dry, crumbly blue such as Bayley Hazen to make a filling (with chopped hazelnuts) for fried squash blossoms?
The authors have included recipes for raclette with boiled potatoes and quick pickles, gougères, tomato-watermelon panzanella salad with feta, ricotta-asparagus soufflé and half a dozen fromage blanc spreads. There's even a recipe for making your own fromage blanc at home, which I intend to try immediately, or as soon as I can get my hands on some rennet. (Only a drop -- a drop!) is needed.
Conley and Smith, co-founders of Cowgirl Creamery near Point Reyes, dispense great advice for planning a cheese course too, and they throw in various non-cheese recipes for delicious salad dressings, making cold brew coffee, anchovy butter and more. Just because. To note: Peggy Smith was a longtime chef at Chez Panisse before she got into cheesemaking.
But if you're going to try just one recipe at first, it should be the mac 'n' cheese made with Cowgirl's Wagon Wheel cheese.
Here's the recipe, which has not gone through The Times' test kitchen:
Cowgirl's Version of the Classic
This recipe features our own Wagon Wheel cheese. We like to make this with the wheel-shaped pasta called rotelle. Bacon makes it even better, as bacon always does.
Serves 6 to 8.
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 pound large rotelle pasta
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk, at room temperature
1½ pounds coarsely shredded Wagon Wheel cheese
8 ounces coarsely shredded sharp white cheddar
5 slices bacon, diced, fried crisp and drained
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon mustard powder (such as Coleman's)
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
4 medium red heirloom tomatoes, cored and sliced
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 3-quart baking dish.
Bring an extra-large pot of water to boiling. Stir in the salt and rotelle. Cook the pasta until it's just shy of being tender, 6 to 7 minutes. Drain well.
In a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat, melt 6 tablespoons of the butter. When the butter is bubbly and fragrant, whisk in the flour to form a smooth paste. Cook, whisking, until the mixture turns golden, 2 to 3 minutes. While still whisking, slowly pour in the milk. Whisk over the heat until the mixture thickens and bubbles, an additional 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.
With a wooden spoon, stir in both cheeses, the bacon, pepper, nutmeg and mustard powder. Add the cooked pasta; mix well but gently.
Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a small pan, remove from the heat, and combine with the bread crumbs. Set aside.
Transfer the cheese mixture to the prepared baking dish. Arrange the sliced tomatoes in wagon-wheel fashion over the top of the pasta mixture. Sprinkle with the buttered bread crumbs.
Bake, uncovered, until the top is a nice golden brown and bubbling on the edges, 30 to 35 minutes. Let the dish cool for at least 10 minutes before serving.