Wensleydale Mac and Cheese with Cranberries and Asparagus
Wensleydale. You can't say it aloud without feeling just a slight bit uppity and with a hint of a proper English accent. Go ahead; try it if you don't believe me. But what is it, you ask? Well, the folks over at cheese.com do a great job explaining the joys of Wensleydale. It was developed in 1150 by the Cistercian monks in North Yorkshire and while it was originally made from sheep's milk, nowadays it tends to be made from a mixture of cow's and sheep's milk. And just when you think you've never heard of Wensleydale before, allow me to remind you of several spots in which it has been featured:
- Monty Python: It is one of the cheeses that John Cleese asks for in "The Cheese Shop" sketch. Even cooler? The cheese shop owner, played by Michael Palin, is named Henry Wensleydale.
- Wallace and Gromit: Wallace mentions in both "A Grand Day Out" and "A Close Shave" that his favorite cheese is Wensleydale.
- Pinky and the Brain: In "Cheese Roll Call" (episode 8, series 1), Pinky sings about his favorite cheeses, of which Wensleydale is one.
So now that you know all about my highbrow tastes in pop culture, back to the cheese.
I came across a nice block of Wensleydale with cranberries at Costco and was intrigued. It looked like a white cheddar studded with bits of cranberry. As I've not yet come across a piece of cheese infused with fruit that I haven't liked, into the cart it went. When I got it home, I looked up the characteristics of Wensleydale and had no idea how to incorporate it (hard, crumbly cheese) into a mac and cheese. Other than the usual of creating a béchamel and then flinging the nearest bit of cheese into the pot. And since that seems to work, I did end up going with a variation on the cheese-flinging theme.
I wanted to add a bit of color contrast to the mac and cheese, as it is Springtime and everything is green and lovely. I thought about fresh dill, but wondered if that and the cranberry flavors would clash too much. After looking around my local market, I came upon fresh asparagus, a quintessential Spring vegetable. Still a little iffy as to whether the flavors would meld well, but heck - they don't ALL turn out great, right? Thus decided, I gathered my ingredients. I added some fresh goat cheese at the last minute as I though the tang of the goat cheese would pair nicely with the tart of the cranberries. Our chives were also beginning to bud in the garden, so I snipped a few of those to add to the mix. First, I cooked the pasta (Bionaturae whole wheat fusilli) in a large pot per package directions, then drained and set it aside. While the fusilli was cooking, I prepped my ingredients: chives and shallots were minced, asparagus was cut and the Wensleydale was grated. Since it is a crumbly cheese, you could always just crumble it but since we're talking a pound of cheese, it was faster to grate it in the food processor. In the same large pot, I melted the butter and then whisked in the flour. I let the slurry cook, still whisking, for about two minutes. I then slowly streamed in the milk while I continued to whisk. Over medium heat, continue to cook the béchamel while whisking until it begins to thicken (usually about 3 to 5 minutes). Once the béchamel has started to thicken, add the shallot, one tablespoon of the chives (reserve the other tablespoon for garnish), and the asparagus. Stir to combine, then add the Wensleydale and goat cheeses and stir again until everything is mixed, melted and happy. Season with salt and pepper (I used about a teaspoon of each) to taste. Finally, drop in the pasta and give it a good stir. Plate and garnish with the remaining chives. The taste? Three and a half elbows up. The tanginess of the goat cheese and the cranberries balanced the "green" flavor of the asparagus and the overall rich, creaminess of the sauce. The shallot flavor was delicate but presented itself initially, while the very subtle sweetness of the cranberry flavor hit at the end of each bite. The asparagus added a nice crunch to the overall dish. And if you can't find Wensleydale locally, you can always substitute a similar hard, crumbly cheese (like a Cheshire or a Caerphilly) and about 2 tablespoons of chopped, dried cranberries.
Here's my recipe.
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 2 cups fat-free milk
- 1 large shallot, minced (about 3 tablespoons)
- 2 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped
- 4 ounces goat cheese
- 16 ounces Wensleydale cheese with cranberries, grated (or, 16 ounces hard, crumbly cheese mixed with 2 tablespoons chopped dried cranberries)
- 16 ounces whole wheat fusilli
- 7 stalks fresh asparagus, chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- In a large pot, cook pasta per package directions, then drain and set aside.
- In the same large pot, melt butter. Once melted, whisk in flour. Cook, whisking, for two minutes. Slowly stream in milk while continuing to whisk. Over medium heat, continue to cook béchamel while whisking until it begins to thicken (3 to 5 minutes).
- Add shallot, one tablespoon chives (reserve other tablespoon for garnish), and asparagus. Stir to combine, then add cheeses and stir again. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add cooked pasta and stir to combine. Plate and garnish with the remaining chives.
- Serve and scarf down immediately!