Blue cheese, hot sauce and celery evoke the ever-popular taste of Buffalo wings.
Make Ahead: The topping can be made a day in advance. The casserole can be assembled a day in advance, brought to room temperature and baked; don't add the topping until just before baking.
Servings: 5 - 6 side-dish servings or 4 to 5 main-course
- For the topping
- 3 slices good-quality white sandwich bread (about 3 ounces total), torn into rough pieces
- 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 equal pieces
- For the pasta and cheese
- 1/2 pound dried elbow macaroni or other small, shaped pasta
- 1 1/2 teaspoons plus 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup diced celery
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 3/4 teaspoon powdered mustard
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
- 2 1/2 cups whole, low-fat or nonfat milk, warmed or at room temperature
- 1/4 cup Buffalo wing sauce, such as Frank's RedHot, or to taste
- 4 ounces blue cheese, crumbled (about 1 cup)
- 4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, such as Cabot Smooth Sharp, shredded (1 cup)
- 1/2 pound cooked chicken, shredded or cut into bite-size pieces
For the topping: Combine the bread and butter in a food processor; pulse 10 to 15 times to yield a coarse crumb mixture.
For the pasta and cheese: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Have an 8-by-8-inch glass or ceramic baking dish at hand.
Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Add the macaroni and 1 1/2 teaspoons of the salt; cook, following the package directions, and pour into a colander to drain.
Heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat until it foams. Add the celery and cook, stirring, for about 1 minute. Add the flour, powdered mustard and cayenne pepper, if using; stir well to combine, continuing to stir until the mixture becomes fragrant and deepens in color, about 1 minute, then gradually stir in the milk. Bring to a boil, constantly scraping the bottom of the pan to prevent scorching; this step will take 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the temperature of the milk. (The mixture must reach a full boil to fully thicken.)
Reduce the heat to medium or medium-low so that the mixture is barely bubbling around the edges; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it has thickened to the consistency of heavy cream.
Remove from the heat. Add 1/8 cup of the Buffalo wing sauce, the cheeses and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and stir until the cheeses are completely melted. Add the cooked pasta and the chicken, stirring to incorporate.
Transfer the mixture to the baking dish, spreading it in an even layer. Drizzle with the remaining 1/8 cup of wing sauce, or to taste, and use a spoon to swirl it deep into the macaroni mixture to create marbled streaks throughout the dish. Sprinkle evenly with topping. Bake until the mixture is bubbling and the crumbs are golden brown, about 20 minutes. (If the topping appears to be browning too quickly, cover loosely with aluminum foil.)
Cool for about 5 minutes before serving.
Adapted from a recipe in the May-June 2004 issue of Cooks Illustrated.
Tested by Jane Touzalin.
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