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Smokey Blue with Leeks and Hazelnuts Mac & Cheese

From Laura Werlin’s Mac & Cheese, Please!

I created this recipe to showcase one of my favorite American cheeses, Smokey Blue, made by Rogue Creamery in Oregon.  If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a cheese that’s just like it sounds – a smoked blue cheese. Although it’s become fairly widely available, don’t despair if you can’t find it. Instead, just use your favorite blue cheese and substitute smoked mozzarella or scarmorza for the regular mozzarella. The hazelnuts, also primarily an Oregon-grown product, are the crowning glory on this unusual but delicious mac & cheese.

Preheat the oven to 375˚F. Butter an 8 x 8 (1½ quart) baking dish or pan (or six 8-ounce shallow baking dishes). Set aside.
Fill a 4- to 5-quart pot about three-quarters full with water and add 1 tablespoon of the salt. Bring to a boil and add the pasta. Cook, stirring once or twice, until tender but firm, about 4 minutes, and drain.

While the pasta is cooking, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a medium skillet. Turn off heat and add the bread crumbs, stirring to coat. Set aside.

Using the same pot you used to cook the pasta, melt the remaining 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add the leeks and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Slowly whisk in the flour and stir constantly until a paste forms, 30 to 45 seconds. Continue stirring for 1 to 2 minutes more, until the mixture starts to darken slightly and smell a bit nutty. Stir in the milk and remaining 1 teaspoon salt and cook until the mixture starts to thicken and is just beginning to bubble around the edges, 5 to 7 minutes. It should be thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Stir in the mozzarella, half of the blue cheese, the mustard powder and cayenne, and cook until the cheeses have melted and the sauce is smooth but not too runny. It should be similar in texture to cake batter. If it’s soupy, continue cooking until it thickens.
Add the pasta, and stir to combine. Pour into prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with the remaining blue cheese followed by the hazelnuts. Top with the bread crumbs. Place the dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until bubbling and golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes before serving.
Serves 6 to 8