Comfort food for me typically involves a lot of carbs and dairy, and I will not hesitate to invite bacon to the party if it’s around. Mac n Cheese is at the top of my ultimate comfort food list, and while I understand the urge to reach for the box stuff (I keep it in my pantry for a rainy day), there’s just no beating the creamy, stringy, cheesy goodness that is homemade.
There are a few different ways you can go about making the cheese “sauce” that typifies a homemade mac n cheese. The first method is more similar to the box kind, using more milk and a processed cheese to make a looser sauce, but the more popular kind starts with a roux (pronounced roo): basically an equal weight of fat + flour cooked into a paste which thickens any liquid added to it. You’ll use a roux for gravy, gumbo, soups, and bechamel sauce, the last of which is what is used in this recipe.
For your pasta I recommend classic elbow macaroni or shells, both of which are great for holding on to all of that cheese-y goodness. A rigatoni or other wide hollow pasta can also work, but avoid using spaghetti or other longer pastas which adhere to the cheese but not the sauce.
The beauty of mac n cheese is really the freedom you have to use the cheeses that you like best. In this recipe I’ll be using a cup each of medium cheddar and mozzarella, along with a little cream cheese, simply because this is what was in my fridge. If you’re unsure where to start, I would suggest choosing 1) a strong flavour cheese (blue cheese, sharp cheddar, gouda, muenster, etc.); and 2) a cheese with a milder flavour but which melts well (mozzarella, provolone, American, gruyere, etc.).
Though I am of the opinion that there is a line somewhere regarding how much cheese is enough cheese, I know that not everyone shares this view. For this recipe, I have made it with two cups of cheese in mind, but if you want to add more, try not to exceed three cups, as otherwise it will overwhelm your bechamel and clump up on you.
To start, place a pot of water to boil. In your saucepan, add the cut up bacon and cook over a medium heat. If your bacon is not rendering off enough fat and you’re worried it’s burning rather than cooking, you can add about a teaspoon of vegetable oil to help it along. Be sure to keep the bacon moving by stirring it so that it cooks evenly. After about 3-4 minutes, it should be done, where the sound of frying has quieted and there very small bubbles of the fat (or oil) covering all of the bacon. At this point remove the bacon from the pan with a spoon to a paper towel, leaving the fat in the pan to help flavour the cheese sauce.
The cheese sauce will take about as long to cook as the pasta, so once you have added your pasta to your boiling (and salty!) water, add your butter to melt with the bacon fat in your saucepan. Once this has melted, you’ll want to sprinkle in your flour evenly across the surface of the melted butter. Then, taking your whisk, stirring them together until they melt together, and paste begins to form. Now we add the milk about 1/4 cup at a time while whisking to make sure it is fully incorporated. Once all the milk has been added, leave it to simmer until your sauce has thickened (it should be similar in consistency to cream rather than milk).
Lower the heat on your sauce, and add in your cream cheese, dijon, salt and pepper, and paprika. Once there are no more lumps, go ahead and add in the shredded cheese and stir continuously to help the sauce melt the cheese. The final product should be a plasma-like substance that acts like a liquid but holds itself together through its cheesy bonds.
At this point your pasta should be an al dente texture, meaning it’s still a little firm, but it’s not sticking to your molars. This is usually just 1-2 minutes shy of the cooking time on the package (i.e. stop cooking at 9 minutes if the package says it takes 11 minutes to cook). Drain, but don’t rinse, the pasta. Rinsing stops the cooking process, and we want it to continue cooking, absorbing the sauce in the oven. Depending on which pot is bigger, pour the sauce on to the pasta or vice versa, and use a spoon to stir until fully combined.
Transfer this mixture to a greased baking dish. If your pasta doesn’t all fit into your dish, you can keep it in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week and bake it later or freeze it for several months. Top with the bacon, the sliced mozzarella (or other melty cheese of choice), and any other personal add-ons, like breadcrumbs, parsley, parmesan cheese, or fried onions, and set to bake in a 400F (200C) oven for 15 minutes.
If you don’t have that browned cheese look after this point, pop on your broiler (or grill if you’re in the UK) for just 2-3 minutes, keeping a close eye on the dish, as this method can burn your food if left unattended.
Serve immediately, and hope that there’s enough left to have it again tomorrow.
Ultra-Cheesy Mac n Cheese
A hearty pasta dish which works great as a side or as a meal on its own.
250g, or 9oz of pasta
1 Tbsp salt
3 strips streaky bacon, cut into small pieces
1 Tbsp butter
2 heaping Tbsp plain flour
1 1/4 cups milk (semi-skimmed or whole)
1 cup medium or sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1 cup mozzarella, shredded
1/4 cup cream cheese, at room temperature
1 Tbsp dijon mustard
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp salt
1 tsp crushed black pepper
Sliced mozzarella for topping
Optional: 1/4 cup breadcrumbs; 1/2 cup fried onion; 1/4 cup parmesan cheese; handful of chopped parsley
1. Set oven to 400F (200C) and leave to preheat.
2. Bring water to a boil, add salt and pasta and allow to cook 1-2 minutes under package recommendations, stirring occasionally.
3. In a separate saucepan, cook bacon on a medium heat until fat has rendered out (3-4 minutes), then remove bacon to a paper towel, leaving the fat in the pan.
4. Make a roux by adding butter to the bacon fat, and once melted, evenly sprinkle in flour. Whisk together over medium heat until flour has dissolved into butter and begins to form a paste.
5. Make bechamel by slowly whisking in milk about 1/4 cup at a time. Once all milk has been incorporated, let the sauce simmer until it is thickened (creating a cream-like consistency).
6. Add in cream cheese, mustard, and spices, and allow the cream cheese to fully melt before adding in shredded cheese. Turn heat to low and stir shredded cheese until it has all melted.
7. Drain pasta and add to the sauce, stirring together. Transfer entire mixture into a baking dish.
8. Top with bacon, sliced cheese, and any optional ingredients. Bake in oven for 15-20 minutes, using broiler (grill) for a few minutes at the end to obtain the golden brown colour.