I've got nothing against a classic mac and cheese. Generally, it is deep dish, with a crispy top layer, and gooey warm and cheddary, doled out in big soft spoonfuls, comfort food of high magnitude. It's just that my preference for a high proportion of crusty top part in my own portion, has led me to make my mac and cheese in a large shallow pan, and cover the top with buttery bread crumbs for insurance.
What we have here is something else again, further along the same path, and a distant relative of Carmela Soprano's baked ziti. This sort of baked pasta is more of a gratin, it is not custardy, and it has less cheese. The first one I made was from the house cookbook I bought years ago at Al Forno, in Providence. This was a really wonderful spicy super crispy almagam of cauliflower, cheeses, tomatos and cream, and it is a dish I have made over and over again. You can read about it here. It's really terrific.
Since then I've found that the basic blueprint is a good one for a quick dinner of that which remains of the fridge, assuming it goes well together. While this one does not have the transcendent qualites of the magic cauliflower gratin, it makes a nice mac and cheese variation. Generally, I make these crispier than you see in the photo-I kind of chickened out, thinking it would look burnt. I shouldn't have been a coward-it;s better when it's on that edge.
Tonight's macaroni cheese gratin thing had:
6 oz cooked pasta
1 cup cream
1 cup grated jarlsberg cheese
6 oz quartered button mushrooms
1 smoked pork chop, cut in small cubes
chopped fresh parsley
tablespoon prepared dijon mustard
pinch red pper
grated parmesan 1/4 cup
a leek cooked in a bit of butter til soft
dry bread crumbs
olive oil spray
I oiled the inside of an oval gratin dish, and mixed together everything but the parm and bread crumbs. The pasta, being hot, had a good start on melting the cheese. I topped it with the parm and bread crumbs, sprayed it with the spray (I like this for even browning) and stuck it in a preheated 500F oven. Yup. Really. You have to watch it, because it depends not only on the oven, but the ingredients, and maybe some mystical factors whether it takes 15 minutes or 45 minutes to get done. This one took 30 minutes in my rather slow oven-but that's no guarantee. You know when this sort of thing is done when it's bubbling underneath, and brown and very crusty on top.
I'd suggest trying the cauliflower one first, and then making up your own. I've no idea if these are anything particularly authentic, but I'm very fond of them.