Jennifer Causey
Active Time
35 MIN
Total Time
45 MIN
Yield
Serves : 6 to 8

My mid-December birthday marks the start of Dungeness crab season in the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps I’m biased, but in my opinion, Dungeness is the tastiest crab there is, and worth celebrating in and of itself. Several years ago, I started inviting friends over under the guise of a birthday party, but really, it’s a celebration of the season, the past year, and, yes, the fresh catch of the best crab on the planet.

My guest list includes too many friends to fit around my dining table, so we’re packed like sardines, snug in the candlelit room with magnums of Champagne and piles of steaming whole crabs to be cracked and dipped in melted butter. It’s messy and a bit chaotic, but fancy at the same time. I’d have it no other way.

I like to choose a theme for the annual menu, usually inspired by a travel experience I had that year. Last year I visited one of my favorite cities, New Orleans, not once but twice, so it seemed fitting to laissez les bons temps rouler come December. The crab was cooked with Creole seasonings in the boil, classic and delicious, but the surprise hit was this macaroni au gratin served with it.

To make it, I channeled iconic restaurants like Galatoire’s, Clancy’s, and Brigtsen’s—some of my favorites to visit when I’m in the Big Easy. A glorious amount of crabmeat baked with shell-shaped pasta in a three-cheese cream sauce —tangy white Cheddar, nutty Gruyère, and sharp Parmigiano-Reggiano—is no-joke delicious, and trés riche. That’s where the Champagne comes in. The tingly bubbles give your palate an ultrasonic scrub between each creamy, cheesy, blissful bite. Blanc de blancs, or Chardonnay-based Champagnes, are particularly good here. They can be saline like shellfish, complex like great cheeses, and bring enough acidity to play counterpoint to both.

This recipe is not cheap, but it is easy. Once you shred the cheese, the rest is simple assembly. I buy the crabmeat picked, because, as I’m told by my fishmonger, it averages out to be about the same price as cooking whole crabs and picking the meat yourself, and it saves precious time. If you don’t have access to Dungeness, try this with your local variety, or whatever type of crab you can get your hands on.

How to Make It

Step 1    

Cook pasta in boiling salted water according to package directions for al dente. Drain.

Step 2    

Meanwhile, toss together cheddar, Gruyère, and Parmigiano-Reggiano until well combined; set aside 1 cup cheese mixture. Preheat broiler to low with oven rack in top third of oven.

Step 3    

Bring cream just to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high. Reduce heat to low; add garlic, and gently simmer, stirring often, 2 minutes. Stir in cooked pasta, and return to a gentle simmer over medium. Cook, stirring often, 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium-low. Stir in cheese mixture in three additions (about 1 1/2 cups at a time), until cheese is melted after each addition. Gently stir in crab and 1/4 cup chives. Season to taste with salt.

Step 4    

Spoon pasta mixture into an 8- x 6- x 2-inch broiler-proof baking dish set on a rimmed baking sheet. Top with reserved 1 cup cheese mixture in an even layer.

Step
Step 5    

Broil in preheated oven until cheese is golden brown and crusty, 5 to 7 minutes, rotating as needed for even browning. Let stand 5 to 10 minutes, and sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon chives.

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