Think about macaroni and cheese - only 10 times better. This sophisticated version combines the nuttiness of Gruyere with the intense flavor of parmesan, juicy poached chicken, and a crisp, cheesy crust.
If you're short on time, feel free to use cooked rotisserie chickens. In that case, though, don't add salt to the sauce, as the stock from the rotisserie chickens will already be salty.
Pasta and Chicken Au Gratin
• Active time: 2 hours Start to finish: 4 hours
• For chicken and stock:
• 2 (31Ú2 to 4 pound) chickens
• 10 cups cold water
• 1 celery rib, quartered
• 1 carrot, quartered
• 1 medium onion, quartered
• 1 large garlic clove, smashed
• 2 fresh thyme sprigs
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1Ú4 tsp. whole black peppercorns
For cheese sauce and casserole:
• 1 stick (1Ú2 cup) unsalted butter, plus additional for greasing gratin pan
• 1 garlic clove, minced
• 1Ú2 cup all purpose flour
• 3 cups whole milk
• 1 cup crème fraiche (8 oz)
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1Ú2 tsp. black pepper
• 1Ú4 tsp. cayenne
• 1 lb Gruyere, coarsely grated (6 cups)
• 1 oz Parmigiano- Reggiano, finely grated with a rasp (11Ú4 cups)
• 1 lb penne rigate or other short tubular pasta
• 6 cups fine fresh bread crumbs (from 14 slices firm white sandwich bread)
• 2 (21Ú2 to 3 quart) shallow gratin dishes (13-by-9 inches)
Poach chicken and make stock:
Cut backbones, wing tips, and second joints of wings from chickens, then cut each chicken into quarters. Put backbones, wing tips, second joints, and giblets (except liver) in a 6- to 8-quart pot with water, celery, carrot, onion, garlic, thyme, salt, and peppercorns and bring to a boil.
Add chicken quarters and return mixture to boil, skimming off any foam, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, 40 minutes.
Transfer chicken quarters with tongs to a shallow baking pan. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove meat from skin and bones, transferring meat to a cutting board and returning skin and bones to pot. Cut chicken into 1-inch pieces and reserve in a large bowl.
Boil stock for 40 minutes, then pour through a fine mesh sieve into a large bowl, discarding solids. Let stand 5 minutes, then skim off fat and set aside four cups stock for making sauce.
Make sauce, cook pasta, and assemble casserole:
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Butter gratin dishes.
Heat butter (1 stick) in a 4-quart, heavy pot over moderate heat until foam subsides, then add garlic and cook, whisking, 1 minute. Add milk and reserved stock (4 cups) in a slow stream, whisking, then bring to a boil, whisking.
Reduce heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, until sauce is slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in crème fraiche, salt, pepper, cayenne, 2 cups Gruyere, and 1Ú2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano.
While sauce simmers, cook pasta in 6- to 8-quart pot of boiling salted water, uncovered, until not quite al dente, 8 to 10 minutes (pasta should still be firm), then drain into a colander. Return pasta to pot, then add chicken and sauce, tossing to coat. Divide pasta mixture between gratin dishes.
Toss bread crumbs with remaining 4 cups gruyere and 3Ú4 cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano, then sprinkle evenly over pasta mixture. Bake gratins until crumbs are golden brown and sauce is bubbling, 20 to 30 minutes. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.
Cook's note: If using rotisserie chickens, pull meat from bones and reserve, then make stock by cooking skin and bones with celery, carrot, onion, garlic, thyme, salt, peppercorns, and 8 cups water 40 minutes total before straining.
Chicken can be poached and stock can be made one day ahead and cooled completely, uncovered, chilled separately, covered.
Bread crumbs can be made one day ahead and kept in a sealed plastic bag at room temperature.
Cheese can be grated one day ahead and chilled separately in sealed plastic bags.
• Molly Gingell owns Molly's Gourmet Catering, takeout and cooking school at 220 W. John St. in Carson City.