Baked Three-Cheese Pasta with Parsley Pesto and Shrimp

baked three-cheese pasta

Who didn't grown up eating macaroni and cheese made right from the blue box? It was one of the many kids' staples I grew up eating, one that I couldn't get enough of. Macaroni and cheese has a homey and cozy feel that almost no dish can come close to. It's probably because it's so rooted in everyone's childhood, that we can never turn up our noses at the blue box. But unfortunately there comes a time to grow up, which doesn't mean we must forgo our mac 'n cheese. It just means we sometimes should make it from scratch, especially when others are watching. It's really very easy to make and the possibilities for reinvention with new ingredients are endless.

Here I take classic macaroni and cheese and bring it up a couple of notches, producing a gourmet slash Italian version. It's my absolute primal love for cheese that leads me to combine three of my favorite cheeses in one gooey meal. Fontina, Gruyère, and Parmesan provide the perfect mix of stretchy cheese, stinky cheese, and salty cheese. After adding all the cheeses to the béchamel, I blend in a pesto made of parsley and walnuts. The finishing gourmet touch is shrimp cut into chunks. This macaroni and cheese is a meal that's hardy, flavorful, and comforting all in one grown-up package. And you cannot call it mac 'n cheese.

Baked Three-Cheese Pasta with Parsley Pesto and Shrimp

12 ounces cavatappi
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk, heated
fine sea salt
freshly ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon hot paprika
1 cup grated Fontina
1 cup grated Gruyère
1 cup grated Parmesan plus 1/4 cup for topping
1/4 cup parsley pesto, recipe follows
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
chopped parsley, for garnish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Cook cavatappi according to package directions in liberally salted water. Cut shrimp into bite-size chunks.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, until thick roux forms, about 2 minutes. Whisk in hot milk and cook, constantly whisking, until thickened, about 4 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and paprika. Mix in cheeses and pesto. Combine with cooked pasta and shrimp.

Spread mixture in a 2-quart baking dish. Sprinkle top with breadcrumbs and 1/4 cup Parmesan. Melt remaining butter and drizzle over top. Bake for 30 minutes until bubbling. To brown top, set under broiler for no more than 5 minutes. Garnish with chopped parsley. Yield: 6 servings.

Parsley Pesto

1 bunch parsley, stems removed
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup olive oil
coarse sea salt

Add parsley and walnuts to a food processor and pulse until thoroughly combined. Drizzle in oil and process until smooth. Season with salt. Leftover pesto can be stored in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month or frozen in a resealable plastic bag. Yield: 1 cup.