Yields 6 to 8 servings.
14 oz Idiazabal cheese, coarsely grated
¼ cup breadcrumbs
8 oz ham steak, chopped into ¼ inch cubes (optional)
1 whole head of garlic
2 cups whole or reduced fat milk
2 cups heavy cream
1 lb shell pasta (medium)
1/8-teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
NOTE: You can use any sharp, flavorful cheese in this recipe. I like Idiazabal for the smoky and meaty flavors. You can buy it from Despana Brand Foods (if you live in NY) or online at http://www.tienda.com.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and position rack in center of oven.
Cut the top off the head of garlic (about ¼ of the way down) to expose the cloves. Season the exposed surface with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Wrap tightly in foil and place in center of oven until cloves become soft, about 45 minutes. Remove foil and squeeze the roasted garlic out of the skin. Mash the garlic into a smooth paste and set aside.
Melt one teaspoon of butter in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the cubes of ham and sauté until ham is lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine milk, heavy cream and garlic paste and simmer until reduced by half, about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally to break up any skin that forms on the surface.
In the meantime, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and add pasta, cooking until al dente (about 6 to 7 minutes, depending on pasta). Drain well and rinse with cold water.
Once milk and garlic mixture has reduced by about half, reduce heat to low and add 12 ounces of the grated cheese (reserve 2 ounces of the cheese for topping), a few ounces at a time, stirring well to ensure cheese melts. Add the ham, cayenne, salt and pepper to taste.
Finally, add the cooked pasta and stir well until evenly coated. Pour into a 13x9x2 ovenproof dish and sprinkle with remaining 2 ounces of cheese and ¼ cup breadcrumbs. Bake, uncovered, for 20 minutes until browned. Let cool 15 minutes before serving.