Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dan's Birthday Dinner: {Bacon} Macaroni and Cheese

Yesterday was Dan's birthday, so at his request, I made him this Bacon Macaroni and Cheese for dinner. If you've never had homemade macaroni and cheese, I am so, so sorry.

Well, let me rephrase. I grew up sort of hating homemade macaroni and cheese. I was a Kraft-fake orange powder-blue box girl all the way. I wasn't even into Velveeta. And whenever my mom would make homemade mac and cheese for dinner, my sister and I would groan and roll our eyes and make faces as we pushed it around on our plates. (Now would be a good time to say that my mom is a very good cook. She's always been in the kitchen with me and is the one who taught me to cook. But for some reason (and I completely blame whatever crappy recipe she must have used and not her clearly superior cooking skills. Hi mom!) her macaroni and cheese always came out lumpy and oily and separated. Think: ricotta cheese gone very, very wrong.)

In summary, I think she tried to serve it to us twice and then gave up. Thinking back, I have no idea when I first tried this Holy Grail of a version, or what prompted me to do so, but ever since, it has been a staple in my recipe rotation. We love it so much we serve it at Thanksgiving. That's right: Macaroni and Cheese for Thanksgiving (plus turkey, stuffing, potatoes, and about 72 other delicious things. Thanksgiving's sort of my thing. It's a blessing, and a curse).

So what makes this macaroni and cheese so amazing?

1. The fresh breadcrumbs. Make them. They will change your life and you will never be able to use dried breadcrumbs again. Sorry.

2. Good quality cheese. Don't buy the pre-shredded orange crap cheese or the already shredded, dry Romano in that little plastic container. Go for the good stuff and grate it yourself. I like Cabot extra-sharp white cheddar and a good Pecorino Romano usually from around the deli section. Yes, it's a lot of cheese grating to do yourself, but if you have a food processor with a grating blade, it will take you about 2 minutes. And if you don't, enlist the help of a friend. Promise them the best mac and cheese in return. They won't be disappointed.

3. The cheese sauce. Sooo different than just sprinkling cheese on pasta and waiting for it to melt. It's creamy and rich and luxurious. Is that enough adjectives for you? And yes, you have to stir it the whole time. Think of it as burning calories that you will be thankful for when you're eating the leftovers, cold, out of the fridge in the middle of the night.

4. The spices. The warm nutmeg, the lemony thyme, and the cayenne. Oh, the cayenne. This mac and cheese has a little kick to it. If you don't like so much spice, dial it down to 1/4 tsp (if you must), but at least try it my way first.

5. Bacon. Originally, and classically, I don't make this with bacon. And it is still AWESOME. But for a special occasion (specifically when making this for a boy), adding some yummy smoky meaty bacon is a nice touch. I mean, can you ever go wrong with bacon? I think not. OH! And DON'T THROW AWAY THE BACON GREASE! Save it! It will keep well stored in the fridge for a few weeks or in the freezer for much longer than that. Use it to grease the pan when you're making scrambled eggs. Or, if you really want to amp up the bacon flavor for this dish, cut the 6 Tbls of butter used in the cheese sauce to 3 Tbls and replace it with some of the bacon grease. Ooh, naughty.

And in case you're wondering, yes, I did make Dan a birthday cake. Stay tuned for that mini disaster. I probably should have just put candles in this and called it a day.

{Bacon} Macaroni and Cheese

Serves 8 as a main course, 12 as a side dish.  

This dish can be made 2-3 days in advance. Follow all directions, but wait to make and add the breadcrumbs until ready to bake and serve. Store unbaked macaroni and cheese in the fridge, covered.

8 Tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter
5 slices white bread, crusts removed, cut into quarters
5 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
18 oz grated white cheddar cheese (about 4 1/2 cups)
5 oz grated Pecorino Romano cheese (about 1 1/4 cups)
1 pound cavatappi pasta
10 slices bacon (optional)


1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9 x 12'' rectangular baking dish.
(1a. If using bacon: Place a metal baking rack on a sheet pan with sides. Lay each bacon slice over the rack so they aren't touching each other or the bottom of the sheet pan. Bake until crispy, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a paper-towel lined plate to drain. Set aside to cool. Once cool, crumble or chop into pieces.)
2. In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, heat milk just until warm. In a high-sided pot over medium heat, melt 6 Tablespoons butter. When it bubbles, sprinkle in flour. Cook, whisking for 1-2 minutes or until all the flour has dissolved and cooked.
3. While whisking, add hot milk a ladle-full at a time, whisking to incorporate before adding the next amount. Once about half the milk has been added, pour the remaining milk in slowly, and continue whisking.
4. Continue cooking, using the whisk to stir the mixture continuously, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick, 5-8 minutes.
5. Remove pan from the heat. Stir in salt, pepper, nutmeg, cayenne, and thyme. Add 3 cups cheddar cheese and 1 cup Pecorino Romano (and bacon, if using). Set aside.
6. Fill a large saucepan with salted water. Bring to a boil and add pasta. Cook 3 minutes less than the manufacturer's instructions. Transfer pasta to a colander and drain well. Stir pasta into reserved cheese sauce and pour into prepared baking dish and set aside.
7. Transfer bread pieces to a bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse until breadcrumbs form. Melt remaining 2 Tbls butter. Pour over bread crumbs and pulse to incorporate.
8. Sprinkle remaining cheddar and Romano cheeses evenly over top of the macaroni and cheese. Top with breadcrumbs. Bake until the cheese is bubbly and the breadcrumbs are toasted, about 35-40 minutes. Place under the broiler for a few seconds for a browner top. Transfer dish to a wire rack to cool 5-10 minutes. Serve hot.

Adapted from Martha Stewart

1 comment:

  1. MY FAVORITE!!!! This is definitely in my top 3 for fav things that you make. I know you are totally shocked.

    p.s. the naughty line made me giggle out loud


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