That’s right. I said it. As a side dish for Christmas dinner, I prepared the best mac & cheese I’ve ever made. For real, it was delicious. After gorging themselves on prime rib and king salmon, there were those who still went back for seconds of my mac. In fact, it even earned a nod of approval from a creature that I had only heard of in myth. No, not a Christmas unicorn; a gentleman who proclaimed that he “didn’t like mac and cheese.”
I know. I didn’t know those people existed either. It was weird.
I’ve played with my recipe for a long time. I’ve made plain versions, impromptu versions, versions with crab and sausage, and even a version with hot dogs and pepperoncini’s. Regardless of my method, I’ve learned one thing though all my tinkering: it’s all about the ingredients.
If you want a great tasting, full-flavored, homemade mac and cheese, you need to invest in quality ingredients. After all, if you’re going to spend a couple hours making mac, you might as well spend a couple extra bucks on the good stuff. Trust me, it’s totally worth it!
- 1.5 lbs organic rotini or other cheese-loving pasta
- 24 oz Uncured Black Forest bacon – pan-fired – 2 tbs of grease reserved
- 1/4 lb butter
- 1 medium onion – chopped
- 1 cup flour
- 2 cups organic heavy cream
- 4 cups organic milk
- 1 lb Beecher’s flagship cheddar – grated
- 1/4 cup reserved
- 1 lb Tilamook medium cheddar – grated
- 1/4 cup reserved
- 8 oz Tilamook pepper jack – grated
- 1/4 cup reserved
- 1/2 tsp chipotle chili powder
- 1/2 tsp mustard powder
- salt and pepper
- 2 cups fresh-made bread crumbs
- 1/2 loaf slightly-stale french bread
Cook the pasta al dente according to the directions on the package. I usually do this while preparing the remainder of my ingredients. Do ALL of the preparation work beforehand – there’s a lot of stirring involved here, so you don’t want to be measuring out ingredients while attempting to whisk… unless you have an extra set of hands.
If you have a large crock pot, like my big-ol blue one, this becomes (nearly) a one-pot meal.
Begin by cooking the bacon in the crock pot. Remove the cooked strips to a paper-towel, and set them aside.
Reserve 2 tablespoons of the drippings, and pour out the rest, but leave all the chunky goodness (otherwise known as fond) at the bottom.
Drop the butter (yes, all of it) into the pot, and stir it around with a wooden spoon, scraping up those yummy bacon bits as the butter melts.
Add the chopped onion, and cook for a few minutes (2-3, tops) stirring occasionally, until the pieces are translucent.
After switching kitchen utensils, whisk the flower into the pot until the mixture forms a paste-like substance, which will only take a minute or two. This is basically a roux, which is a mixture of flour and fat, used as a thickening agent for sauces.
You’ll be using this mixture to thicken up the cream and milk, which you should begin adding slowly to the pot. It’s also important to whisk the mixture constantly at this point, otherwise the milk will burn to the bottom of the pan, which would taint the flavor of the finished product.
Keep whisking – you may want to switch off with a willing helper – until the mixture reduces and thickens, which may take about 15 minutes when working with this volume of liquid. You can tell that it’s ready if it’s slightly sticky, and coats a wooden spoon without running off immediately. Frankly, I always think of it as ooze-like, but that may be one of my least appealing ways to describe a food product.
Once your mixture is ooze-like, fold in the cheeses… and bear with me on this one.
Since I’m weird, I add cheeses in order of density. As such, I begin by adding the most sense cheese while the pot is still on the heat. In this case, that means I mix in the Beecher’s reserve, and stir to combine. Once it’s melted, I remove the pan from the heat, and fold in the medium Cheddar (my Tilamook) until it reaches an even consistency. Finally, I do the same for the least-dense cheese, in this case my pepper Jack. My theory is that I can create an even viscosity if I allow the more dense (less-moisture) cheeses more time and heat to melt, and introduce them in reverse order as the mixture cools.
It may be a weird, useless endeavor, but it’s what I do, and the outcome is delicious.
After the cheeses are nice and smoothly integrated, fold in the other (non-pasta) stuff. This means the chopped bacon, the chili powder, the mustard and the salt and pepper all go in at the same time. Make sure to mix everything so it’s evenly distributed before adding the pasta.
Gently fold your noodles into the cheese mixture as a last step. I like waiting until then end of the process to add the mac, because I feel that I’m able to more thoroughly fold all of the added flavors into the noodles, thereby getting all of the yummy bits of bacon and spices into the nooks and crannies of whichever type of noodle you’ve selected.
To make the topping, add torn-up chunks of the french bread (you can also use regular, boxed bread crumbs instead) to a food processor with the reserved cheeses and a pinch of salt and pepper.
Pulse the mixture until the crumbs are roughly the same size.
Top the pasta and cheese mixture with your bread crumbs, and bake (uncovered) in a 375 degree, preheated oven for 40 minutes, or until the top crust is golden-brown, and the sides are bubbly.
Serve it when it’s hot and gooey, but go easy on the portion sizes; there’s enough salt and fat in this thing to
kill a donkey make it extremely delicious.