APPLES AND CHEDDAR are no strangers to one another. Cheddar cheese with apple pie is a New England tradition. A piece of sharp, savory cheese paired with a slice of fresh, sweet apple, or broiled on a piece of sourdough bread with onion and mustard is a gustatory pleasure.
Fresh from the experience of tasting Zack’s Mac and Cheese — a wildly popular destination in the New Hampshire Building at this year’s Eastern States Exposition (“The Big E”) in West Springfield, Massachusetts — I was inspired to try an apple version of this classic comfort food. It is outstanding.
McIntosh is the obvious choice for the apple in this recipe, not just for the play on words but because it has the right sweet-tart flavor to contrast with the cheese’s savory sharpness. The pieces of McIntosh provide a creamy texture distinct from both sauce and pasta. A denser apple like Cortland requires more baking time to cook completely.
The recipe below is adapted from U.S. Apple Association, which represents the nation’s apple industry. I made a few substitutions and changes. For one, I substituted garlic for onion in the original recipe. The garlic adds complexity and intensity to cheese and apple, making for an unusual and dynamic flavor.
I used whole wheat pasta. It packs a more nutritional punch than the traditional processed kind, and it is more substantial, so a smaller portion suffices. I appreciate whole wheat pasta’s rich, nutty flavor, too, although when covered in cheese sauce it is indistinguishable from the plain white stuff.
For breadcrumbs we cubed 8 slices of a hearty oatmeal bread and sautéed it in a stick of butter until browned. It made a spectacular topping.
Apple McIntosh and Cheese
1 12-oz. box rotini or other whole grain pasta
2 New England McIntosh apples, cored and diced (3-4 c)
3 T butter
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 T flour
2½ c milk
1 bay leaf
3 c sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 T dry sherry
salt and pepper to taste
2-3 c breadcrumbs, sautéed in one stick melted butter
Preheat oven to 350°. Butter a 3-quart casserole.
Boil pasta in a large saucepan according to directions. Drain and return pasta to saucepan. Add diced apples.
Meanwhile, melt butter in medium saucepan. Add garlic and cook 3 minutes or until tender. Stir in flour; cook 1 minute.
Add milk, bringing to a gentle simmer and whisking constantly. Add bay leaf. Reduce heat to low and cook sauce for 10 more minutes, stirring often.
Discard bay leaf. Add 2½ cups cheese and the sherry, and cook until cheese is melted. Remove from heat; season to taste with salt and pepper.
Pour cheese sauce into pasta-apple mixture, and transfer mixture to prepared casserole. Sprinkle with remaining ½ cup cheese and top with sautéed breadcrumbs.
Bake, uncovered, 30 minutes until golden brown. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.