Little Aria's preschool classmate Mary welcomed her second baby sister two weeks ago. We thought we would prepare a homemade meal for her family. Ground beef is perfectly suited to toddlers' palates, so for the main dish, Aria and I prepared mac and cheese comfort food with a nesting beef and tomato bed of its very own.
First, I prepared the bottom layer with a mixture of ground beef, tomatoes, thyme and onions. Then I added creamy Cheddar mac and cheese.
I've included a picture of the menu once we wrapped up the entire meal for Mary's family.
Servings: 8 servings
1 (16-ounce) package fusilli pasta
12 ounces ground beef
1 (14.5-ounce) can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons plain Greek-style yogurt
1 teaspoon honey
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 onion, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon red chili flakes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
¼ cup sweet basil leaves, chopped
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
4½ cups milk, warmed for 2 minutes in the microwave
½ teaspoon white pepper, freshly ground
1 cup Cheddar cheese, freshly grated
2 slices white bread
4 tablespoons olive oil
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Making the bottom layer sauce:
Heat about 2 tablespoons oil in a large pan. Add the onion and sprig of thyme and cook over low heat for about 8 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent the onion from burning, until the color is evenly golden brown. Increase the heat, add 2 cloves garlic and red chili flakes and cook until lightly golden. Add the ground meat. Separate the beef in the pan until the meat changes color; add the yogurt. Stir the meat occasionally. Add about ½ cup of water. Wait for the mixture to reach a full boil, then immediately turn the heat down to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper. Cover with a lid and cook for about 20 minutes. Check the liquid and periodically add the honey and tomato sauce and paste. Gently stir the mixture. Check seasoning.
For the pasta: Cook according to package instructions. When the pasta is cooked (cooked inside and out but still in shape and firm), reserve about ⅓ cup to ½ cup of pasta water and drain the pasta (do not rinse) into a large colander. Season with a little salt. Add 1 tablespoon oil to the pot used for the pasta. Return the pasta, add a small mound of butter and sauté for 1 minute. Turn off the heat, then add basil.
For the béchamel sauce:
In a saucepan, melt 8 tablespoons of butter over medium-low until it's almost brown, but don't let the butter burn. Add the flour. Keep stirring manually with a whisk for approximately 3 minutes. The flour should absorb the butter and form a paste. Stir until well incorporated and add the milk in 3 stages. Increase the heat; continue cooking, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes. Turn the heat off. Add the cheese (reserve about ½ cup Cheddar cheese for the topping). Mix well. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Let the sauce rest until it's time to assemble the dish. Pour half the amount of the sauce over the cooked pasta and mix well. Add more sauce until it's completely coated. You might have a bit of leftover sauce (you can store it in the freezer for future use).
Cut the bread into pieces. Coarsely blend in a food processor. Mix with the reserved cheese.
Grease a casserole dish with the remaining butter (for easy clean up). Pour the beef mixture into the bottom of the dish. Level the first layer with a spatula and fill with the creamy pasta. Sprinkle the cheesy bread crumbs on top.
Place in the oven for at least 20 minutes (until golden crispy brown) and if necessary, broil for about 2-3 minutes to get a nice golden crust.
Remove from the oven and allow to rest for at least 15 minutes. Cut into 8 portions and serve warm.
To make béchamel sauce, I always start with all the ingredients at the same temperature, so make sure to heat the milk in the microwave for about 2 minutes (or in a saucepan), so it's warm. If you get lumpy pieces in the sauce, don't hesitate to use a hand blender.
Check out many other gratins in my first cookbook Haute Potato.