Recipe: Swiss Potato Mac & Cheese with Caramelized Onions

Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5 enews

Swiss potato mac is a great winter dish from the mountains to make at your house

Ari’s Swiss Potato Mac

There’s no denying that we’re into the first full-on formal weeks of winter here in Michigan. A sprinkling of snow and plenty of below-freezing temperatures. Which means it’s a good time of year to look to hearty winter dishes to keep us warm. I learned this one ages ago when I was in Switzerland. I forget it during the summer but every so often when the weather turns cold, it pops back into my head. In Swiss-German the name is Älplermagronen. You can just call it Swiss Potato Mac & Cheese if you want. It’s not hard to do, and it’s happily delicious!

Rahmtaler Cheese at the Deli

I was reminded of the dish last week because we have so many good Swiss mountain cheeses in at the Deli. There’s an amazing Gruyere from the Mons family—they’re based in France near Lyon, but they have many years of good relationships with artisan cheesemakers on the other side of the Swiss border. What we have on hand, made at the Laiterie du Mouret, is approaching 24 months of age and its flavor is pretty amazing. We’ve also got a great wheel of Rahmtaler in right now. This is essentially the classically enormous wheels of Emmental cheese, made by hand, in very small batches, but using full fat milk instead of the now standard skim. Markus Hengartner, Marcel Züger and Hansruedi Gasser are the three cheesemakers producing the cheese. Rahmtaler was actually the way most Emmental was made up until the 16th century—a surplus of butter pushed farmers to stop skimming the cream for butter-making as is now the norm, and make a creamier, full fat Emmental. We get the Rahmtaler in the traditional big 180 pound wheels. It’s got all the great nuttiness and nose that I love in a classic Emmental but just a bit more sweetness and a fuller mouthfeel. I’m a big fan. Either of these cheeses (or any of the other great mountain cheeses we have on hand) would be delicious in this dish—I used some of each in the same dish with really good results.

One of the things that makes this Swiss Potato Mac and Cheese so terrific is the hefty pile of caramelized onions you put on top before serving. (Email me if you’d like the formal recipe for the Älplermagronen.) Slice a couple of good sized onions and cook them very slowly in butter for a good 30 to 45 minutes, stirring somewhat regularly, till they turn deep brown and are very soft and sweet. You can do these ahead if you want—they keep well, and if you have extra you can use them on other dishes as well (great on a grilled cheese or a burger). When the onions are almost ready, bring a big pot of water to a boil, and add a few teaspoons of sea salt (you want the water to taste properly salted). Add the potatoes—I like any of the small heirlooms you can still get at the Farmer’s Market, or also Yukon Golds. If the potatoes are small you can leave them whole; if they’re bigger cut them into quarters. When the potatoes are about ten minutes away from tender, add the pasta. I like to use short pasta, about the same size as the potatoes. Mancini mezze manicheRustichella penne rigate, or Gentile Vesuvio all work very nicely. Stir well. Pull a couple cups of the cooking water out and set aside—the starch in it will help bind the sauce. When the pasta is al dente and the potatoes are tender, drain the lot.

Put the cooking water back in the pot at moderate heat, add the pasta and potatoes. Add a good bit of grated cheese and stir well. How much cheese you like is up to you. Essentially, you’ll be creating something like a fondue with macaroni and potatoes. Add a good bit of freshly ground pepper, preferably white, but if you don’t have it on hand you can use black pepper instead—it won’t get you in trouble with the culinary cops. Grind some fresh nutmeg in at the end. Check for salt. The finished product will look like pan-made macaroni and cheese with pieces of potato integrated into it.

Livermore Red Walnuts at the Deli

Serve the Älplermagronen in warm bowls and put a bunch of the caramelized onions on top. The onions are a key ingredient in the eating, not just a garnish, so don’t skimp. Their sweet meatiness makes a compelling counterpoint to the creamy richness of the Potato Mac & Cheese. Finish with a bit of grated Parmigiano Reggiano, or some of Willi Lehner’s well-aged Wisconsin Grana. Although it’s not the way I learned the dish all those years ago, I’ve seen some folks who always serve it with applesauce. I like to keep my sweets and savories separate so I don’t do it that way, but of course this is your dinner. There are still good apples out at the market to make sauce with. If it were me I’d probably hold the apple for dessert and eat some sliced, with a handful of those California red walnuts or Piemontese hazelnuts we have at the Deli and then some good honey as well. Apples and honey are typical for Rosh Hashanah, to presage a good and sweet year. Eating them didn’t work all that well for me when I tried it back in September at the start of the Jewish New Year, but maybe I’ll give it another shot now that we’re turning over the Julian calendar. After all, we can use all the help we can get, right?