Comfort food: ham and cheese bake

A cheesy one-dish casserole with salty ham is perfect for a weeknight dinner on a frosty evening.

The Pastry Chef's Baking
This ham and cheese bake is a one-dish casserole that comes together quickly.

I found this recipe on Penzey's website and with newfound, albeit short-lived, enthusiasm for making "real food" and using some spices I recently purchased from Penzey's, this looked right up on my alley to venture to make. That means it's both easy to make and something my picky palate would eat.

I did modify it slightly though by omitting the mushrooms since I don't like them. I also chopped the onion in small pieces so they wouldn't get in the way of my eating. I don't mind onions if they're small enough and go unnoticed when I take a bite. I'm OK with the flavor of onions, it's the slippery texture I'm not wild about. But when you mix them with equally-soft-textured pasta, small bits of cooked onion are fine.

Of course, typical of my cooking efforts, I decided I knew better than the recipe because when I was putting this together, the 1-1/2 cups of pasta I boiled didn't look like it would be enough for the amount of sauce that the recipe made. I also decided that not only was I going to use up the leftover Honeybaked Ham but I would also add some turkey sausage kielbasa for extra protein.

The additional protein turned out to be a good idea, the doubling of the amount of pasta – less so. Yup, it came out a bit dry since now there wasn't enough sauce for the amount of pasta I used. Oops. I also discovered baking the casserole dish when you don't have enough sauce makes the top layer of pasta shells a bit, er, chewy. Ah, you have to bake the dish. Now all that "extra" sauce makes sense to prevent the dish from drying out. So that's a whole post worth of singular advice: Don't use too much pasta in this recipe.

Other than my usual foibles of cooking, this dish was fine. It could use a little spice (and remember I have bland taste buds so that's saying something) so feel free to use hot links or some other kind of spicy protein. Or add some (Penzey's) pepper.

Ham and cheese bake

1-1/2 cups pasta (elbow macaroni or shells)
2 tablespoons butter
8 ounces fresh mushrooms, sliced (optional, I left them out)
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup flour
1/2 to 1 teaspoon Penzey's pepper, to taste
2 cups chicken stock
1-1/3 cups milk
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1-1/2 pounds cooked, cubed ham
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cook the pasta according to package directions and drain. 

2. While pasta is cooking, melt the butter over medium heat in a large skillet, Add the mushrooms and onion and cook until tender and golden, stirring frequently, about 10 minutes.

3. Reduce heat to low, sprinkle on the flour and pepper and stir to combine. Gradually add the stock and milk, stirring vigorously as you drizzle it in; simmer until thickened. Add the cheese, nutmeg and lemon juice. Stir until melted and combined, 3-5 minutes. 

4. Add the pasta and ham; stir to combine. Spoon into a greased casserole dish. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese and bake at 350 degrees F., uncovered, for 30 minutes, until bubbling and golden.

Related post on The Pastry Chef's Baking: Lemon Pasta with Ham

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