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I didn’t deliberately wait to post this recipe but I don’t think that I could have picked a better weekend to do it. It’s PERFECT Pittsburgh fall weather – chilly, wet & beautiful – perfect for homemade mac & cheese.

I LOVE mac & cheese. I used to love the crap from the box, and I will begrudgingly admit that even now I have the rare craving for the powdered cheese crap – I blame nostalgia & my mom (love you mom!), but nothing compares to the real deal. Especially when you add BACON! Which of course I did :)

The recipe is good without the bacon…so if you are a vegetarian or just a bacon hater feel free to omit it and add 6 Tbsp of extra butter to make up for the missing bacon fat.

My cheese sauce recipe for this kind of application is a roux based bechamel. For those that aren’t culinary encyclopedias a bechamel is one of the Mother Sauces, meaning one of the 5 base sauces most sauces are derived from. A classic bechamel is milk thickened with a roux and cooked at a light simmer until it thickens to a nappe consistency. What the hell is nappe? Well if you dip a wooden spoon/spatula/kitchen spoon into the sauce after it has thickened it will coat the back well and when you drag your finger through it doesn’t run back together. And a roux? Well thats a mixture of fat, usually butter, and flour that when whisked into a liquid will thicken it as it simmers. Their use is varied & common, they range from light blonde to almost dark chocolate brown – mainly used in creole & cajun foods for a nutty flavor. In this kind of thing we stick with blonde, I’ll get into the darker ones later, any excuse to make etouffe is good in my book!

Macaroni is BORING, I use a spirally fun noodle called cavatappi or cellentani, they are a corkscrew shaped stabby pasta with ridges on the outside that hold the sauce better than traditional macaroni. Small shells, penne, gemelli or rotini all work really well, pretty much anything stabby works perfectly fine. The pasta needs to be par-cooked before getting all mixed up. Ideally ALL pasta should be cooked al dente so it still has some tooth to it, for this kind of dish you want to waaaay undercook it. Most of the stabby pastas cook for 11 minutes-ish, since we are going to bake this you should  only cook it for 7-8 minutes so it isn’t mush when it comes out of the oven. The par-cooked pasta should be borderline raw when it comes off the stove.

Let’s chat about pasta cookery for just a second, I’d like to dispel a myth – adding oil to the water doesn’t help it not stick together, stirring does that. Actually the addition of oil does pretty much nothing when added to the water, not even flavor.  The only thing that should be in your pasta water is salt, and a liberal amount of it at that. Taste the water, you should taste the salt, when you do you’ve added enough.

The only tricks to perfect pasta are 1) use enough water – about a gallon per pound you are cooking, the pasta needs room to move, 2) salt your water, it’s the only time you get to flavor the centerpiece of whatever it is you are creating, 3) the water has to be at a BOIL when you add the pasta and returned to a boil as quickly as possible after it is added (side note dont cook it lidded, all it will do is boil over and make a mess), 4) STIR STIR STIR, especially important with stringy pasta. That is the magic that stops the noodles from sticking together, 5) only cook it for the recommended amount of time (or a minute less for me because I prefer it more al dente than they recommend), get it drained as soon as it’s done and last but far from least 6) if you are not using it immediately get it rinsed with cold water to stop it from carry over cooking as it sits. If you are going to use it later rinse it until it is totally chilled, if you’re using it immediately don’t bother; if it sticks together some add a touch of water and smoosh it around right before you need it & it’ll un-stick itself. NO OIL. Lots of people do it, I know, but all you’re doing is making it harder for sauce to stick to the noodles. Why woud you do that? Answer – you wouldn’t. NO OIL. Trust me, I’m a professional :)

The very most important thing ~ CHEESE! For this sauce I used a mix of extra sharp 1 year aged cheddar, monterey jack & jarlsburg, all fresh grated. I recommend grating whatever blend of cheese you use yourself, the cheese tastes better & melts better. I also recommend using good cheese, the flavor is better and you use less because of it. The extra sharp cheddar is for flavor, the jack & jarlsburg more for texture – they both melt beautifully. Mix it up with whatever kind you like and adjust seasoning when you’re done. Can’t forget about the cheese in the topping!! I used fresh grated asiago & aged provolone but any combo of grated hard cheeses will work – aged cheddar, parmesan, fontina, romano, etc.

Time to cook!

Bacon Mac & Cheese makes a 9×13 pan

  • 1/2# Stabby Pasta of your choice

The Sauce

  • 1/2 cup Butter (1 stick)
  • 5 slices Thick Sliced Bacon, diced up (vegetarian version add 6 Tbsp of butter instead)
  • 1/2 Sweet Onion, small dice (about 1 cup of diced onion total)
  • 2-3 cloves Garlic, minced
  • 3 Tbsp Flour
  • 2 cups Whole Milk (you can loose less than whole)
  • Salt & Fresh Ground Pepper to taste
  • Pinch of Ground Nutmeg
  • Hot Sauce (Red Hot or Tobassco) to taste
  • 2 Tbsp Tomato Paste
  • 1/2 cup Heavy Cream
  • 1 # Grated Cheese – I used Ex Sharp Cheddar (8oz), Monterey Jack (4oz) & Jarlsburg (4oz)

The Topping

  • 1 1/2 cups Panko Bread Crumbs
  • 1 cup Grated Hard Cheeses (I used Asiago & Aged Provolone)
  • Reserved Bacon from the cheese sauce

Get your pasta water on & salted. When it boils par-cook it for 7-8 minutes, stirring periodically. When it is cooked drain and rinse with cold water until it is fully chilled. Set it aside to use later. Also get the oven heated to 375.

While the pasta is cooking dice the bacon, onion and garlic. Melt the butter in a pot or pan and add the bacon. Render until it is mostly crisped, but not crispy. Use a slotted spoon to remove as much as you can, all of it is not necessary but get out as much as possible, and set on a paper towel lined plate to add to the topping later. Add the onions and garlic to the pan and cook over medium heat until softened and sweet smelling, about 4 minutes. You can see there is still some bacon left in there.

When the onions & garlic are cooked sprinkle the flour over the whole mixture and mix until it is all incorporated and the mixture has no flour lumps. Slowly add the milk while you stir with a whisk, working the roux out and making sure you have no lumps. Leave the heat at medium and stir while it starts to thicken up. Season with salt & pepper, nutmeg, a touch of hot sauce and the tomato paste. Bring it to a gentle dimmer & keep stirring until it thickens to nappe and when you taste it you don’t catch any starchy flouriness. Takes about 8 minutes.

Add the heavy cream, bring back up to a simmer while stirring. Add the grated cheeses and stir until they are melted in and the sauce is totally smooth. Give it a taste at this point and adjust the seasoning as you like; it will probably need some more salt & a little bit more hot sauce…at least I thought so.

While all of this is going on mix all of the ingredients for the topping together in a bowl. Mmmmmmmm…Bacon.

Mix the pasta and the sauce together. It should be a tad saucy, that’s on purpose. Put the sauced pasta in your pan, I use a glass baking dish that is the same volume as a 9×13, it’s smaller but deeper; make sure it’s big enough to hold all the awesome.

Distribute the topping over the top of the pasta mixture evenly.

Bake at 375 for about 40-45 minutes, until the top is golden brown and crisp.

Now the hard part…let it sit for 10-15 minutes to set up. NOW EAT! This makes enough for 4-6 with leftovers. Reheating is best in the oven ~ 350 for about 20 minutes, or in the microwave covered with a damp paper towel for a couple minutes.

You can add all kinds of stuff to this – grilled or roasted chicken, vegetables, more bacon, ham, shrimp (if you do switch up the cheddar with asiago or fontina), fresh herbs. Really flexible recipe to get dressed up or dressed down however you like! Perfect dinner for when the weather starts to get chilly!