My husband likes to joke that pasta is his love language. Consider me fluent then. Neither of us came to marriage with any meaningful connection to pasta, but somehow it became the food that says the most to us.
The big meals in my memory—the Michelin-starred restaurants, the celebrations, the award-winning chefs—are special, but fuzzed over in a happy, celebratory haze. Not the pasta. The simplest dinners are sharpest, etched in my mind because food is never only about the things we are tasting, but the people we are with. Pasta has been for us a clearing in the thick overgrowth of ordinary life, an open place to park shallow bowls and pour wine and linger, longer.
The first time I made this leek-Manchego mac & cheese it was for our best friends and it was because we had a secret to celebrate. When we announced I was pregnant, their shock mirrored our own from a few weeks earlier. Manchego, with its sophisticated, earthy, nutty notes, felt right here: it steered a familiar dish into new territory. I couldn’t drink the wine, but I was comforted by the pasta’s luscious creaminess, the gratifying crunch of toasty golden breadcrumbs.
The reason for that winter night’s celebration is three years old now, and he devours this very pasta (and all pasta) with gusto, as if we needed further proof he is ours. I remember the tiny glasses of Spanish wine and candlelight from the first night we ate it, and I remember the spilled sippy cups of milk and highchair percussion from the last time. I remember every bowl of pasta in between and the people we are and the people we have been and the people we are surely becoming, speaking to each other the way we do best, around the table.
Leek and Manchego Mac & Cheese
7 Tbs. unsalted butter
1 bunch leek greens
(from 1 ½ pounds of leeks), thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
3 Tbs. all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
10 ounces Manchego cheese, shredded (2 ½ cups)
1 pound elbow macaroni
¾ cup panko breadcrumbs
2-4 sprigs fresh thyme
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet. Add the leeks and cook over high heat, stirring until slightly wilted, 5 minutes; season with salt and pepper. Cook over low heat until very tender, about 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, melt 3 tablespoons of butter with the sprigs of fresh thyme. Stir in the panko breadcrumbs and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until golden and toasted, about 3–4 minutes. Discard the thyme sprigs and set crumbs aside.
3. In a large saucepan, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the flour and cook over medium-high heat, whisking for 2 minutes. Add the milk and bring to a boil, whisking until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Add 2 cups of the cheese, season generously with salt and pepper, and whisk until melted.
4. In a large pot of well-salted boiling water, cook the macaroni until nearly al dente. Drain well. Add the macaroni and the cheese sauce to the leek greens and stir until combined.
5. Transfer the macaroni to 8 ramekins (or a 9×13-inch baking dish) and sprinkle with the remaining ½ cup of cheese. Top with breadcrumbs. Place ramekins on a baking sheet and bake for about 25–40 minutes (depending on baking vessel), until bubbling. Turn the broiler on and broil the mac & cheese until golden-brown on top, about 2 minutes.