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Gourmet Macaroni and Cheese: Penne With Garrotxa, Serrano Ham, and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

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When you're looking for hot dishes to warm your chilly digits, can you think of a better place to look than the Spanish countryside? This macaroni and cheese recipe is awash with comforting Iberian flavors -- deep, rich, full tastes that put the "heart" in hearty. When we were writing Melt: the Art of Macaroni and Cheese, we looked for global flavors that brought out the best in our favorite cheeses. I was lucky enough to visit Spain in the very beginning of the writing process, where I lived on cheese, ham, and wine. Once I got home, I was determined to capture those sunny Barcelona flavors in a thick, luscious gratin.

Native to Catalonia, Garrotxa is a throaty, goaty cheese that imparts an almost Cheddar-like tanginess. This pasteurized flavor titan gets its smooth earthiness from the lush coastal grasses that feed the goats raised to make it. Here, Garrotxa coalesces with two other signature Spanish ingredients, sun-dried tomatoes and Serrano ham, to create an ethereal cheese gratin polished with just a touch of butter, milk, and crème fraîche. This recipe isn't your typical melty, creamy macaroni and cheese; rather, it's a thicker dish that allows the ingredients to mingle coyly while remaining somewhat independent.

While Garrotxa is a cheese worth seeking out, this dish is just as delicious using whatever cheeses you have around the house. Aged cheddar works well, as does Pecorino, Gruyere, Fontina, or whatever else you can find on sale at your local supermarket. I've really enjoyed it with both Tillamook cheddar and Kerrygold Dubliner. (Note: Trader Joe's has a particularly good cheese selection, while still maintaining reasonable prices.) Any ham, salami, or cured spicy sausage will work well in this dish as well, though if you're willing to spring for Spanish ham, Italian pancetta, or any good prosciutto, you'll be in for a real treat.

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Penne with Garrotxa, Serrano Ham, and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

From Melt: the Art of Macaroni and Cheese

Serves 2 to 4

8 ounces penne
1 pound Garrotxa or cheese of your choice, shredded
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup crème fraîche
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/2 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes
6 ounces Serrano ham slices, or cured meat of your choice, torn coarsely by hand into chunks

Native to Catalonia, Spain, Garrotxa is a throaty, goaty cheese that imparts an almost Cheddar-like tanginess. A gray mold blankets this pasteurized flavor titan, which gets its smooth earthiness from the lush coastal grasses that feed the goats raised to make it. Cutting away the rind on this firm cheese is easy, and a sharp knife run down the sides will shave off the moldy exterior without sacrificing much of the Garrotxa beneath.

Here, Garrotxa coalesces with two other signature Spanish ingredients, sun-dried tomatoes and Serrano ham, to create an ethereal cheese gratin polished with just a touch of butter, milk, and crème fraîche. This recipe isn't your typical melty, creamy macaroni and cheese; rather, it's a drier dish that allows the ingredients to mingle coyly while remaining somewhat independent.

1. Preheat oven to 375°F.

2. Cook the pasta in salted boiling water until al dente. Drain through a colander. Set aside.

3. In a saucepan, combine cheese, milk, crème fraîche, and butter. Cook over medium-low heat until cheese is mostly melted and you have a creamy sauce. To keep the cheese sauce from breaking, remove the sauce from the heat before the cheese is entirely melted. Season with pepper, adding more to taste if you like.

4. In a shallow buttered casserole dish, toss pasta with sun-dried tomatoes and Serrano ham. Pour the sauce over the pasta, then stir together until combined. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the top is golden brown and bubbling around the edges. Serve immediately.

About the author: Stephanie Stiavetti is a writer and cookbook author in San Francisco. Stephanie's cookbook, Melt: the Art of Macaroni and Cheese, celebrates America's favorite dish by recreating it with small production, specialty cheeses. Her food blog, The Culinary Life, is a repository for all things comfort food related, from savory dinners to transcendental desserts. She also publishes a monthly culinary newsletter full of stories, review, and helpful tips.