Recipe 33: Bacon Mac-N-CheesePosted: August 19, 2012
Hey, Weekly Mackers… It’s me, Lex. You remember me. Come on, don’t be like that. You know I still love you, right? Right?!
Seriously though, I apologize for my extended absence. I wish I could give you some awesome excuse as to why I’ve been away so long, like that I was finding myself in an ashram in India or backpacking across Europe or training with kung fu monks on a mountain top, but the reality is much more mundane: I’ve been distracted by my return to the workplace. Oh, it’s not like I’m working any crazy overtime or anything (yet – I’ve been told I may want to anticipate this), just trying to fit some of these recipes in to my days off when I might not feel like sweating over a stove in a small, hot kitchen – since I’m very unlikely to fit them in during the time before I leave for work.
So what does this mean for the challenge? Good question. I don’t have an answer. A friend recently asked me if I would make it to 52, and I honestly don’t know. I know I’ll try and that I have more than enough options to choose from, but whether or not I’ll succeed still remains to be seen. But please keep faith in me, Weekly Mackers.
And now, on to the mac.
As anyone who has had even the slightest cognizance of culinary trends on TV and the Internet well knows, bacon has found its way into just about any food item imaginable – and maybe even some most sane people wouldn’t imagine. I, for one, am fine with this trend. I don’t have bacon often because it’s just so very decadent I try to keep it as a treat (says the chick running a mac and cheese blog), but when I have it, I’m darn well going to enjoy it. I think the combination of bacon with mac and cheese makes perfect sense – both are rich and decadent, slightly salty, and I think the bacon pairs well with cheese. So come with me, dear friends: Put away those calorie counters and hide that bathroom scale in the corner. Today is the day for celebrating fat and salt and carbs. Tomorrow we diet.
Bacon Mac-N-Cheese (from $35 a Week)
• 1 lb. elbow macaroni or other pasta of your choice – I used corn elbows
• 5 1/2 cups sharp cheddar, about 1 lb. – I used a pound of yellow cheddar
• 4 cups whole milk – I used skim because that’s what I had. Whole might have been better, but skim works all right
• 6 slices bacon
• 3 T flour (I used Pamela’s)
• 4 small or 2 large cloves garlic, smashed (I used two large)
• A few thyme sprigs (mine were from the garden)
• 2 1/2 cups good-quality bread crumbs (I used gluten-free bread crumbs and panko, as I ran out of bread crumbs and was too lazy to get some of my gluten-free bread and blend it up)
• A T or so of olive oil
• Salt & pepper
Preheat oven to 350 F. Toss the bread crumbs in the olive oil with a little salt and pepper and bake until well-browned and crunchy, stirring a couple of times to prevent burning. 10 minutes? I admit I wasn’t paying attention to how long this took. Just start it while you’re prepping the other ingredients. – I did this differently, as will be indicated below
When the bread crumbs are done, remove them, set aside, and increase oven heat to 400 F. Grease a 13×9 Pyrex dish.
Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until just a minute or two shy of al dente. Drain, rinse well under cold water, and set aside.
Put the smashed garlic and thyme in a medium saucepan.
Add the milk, plus salt and pepper to taste, and heat to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and keep covered while you prep everything else. Try not to let it boil over. Mine was on low apparently too long and started to boil over slightly. The bottom of the pot looked icky, but things tasted fine.
Cook the bacon over medium-low heat in another medium saucepan until crisp and all the fat has rendered. Remove, chop, and set aside. If you will be too tempted by the bacon, cook an extra strip or two for yourself. I happily was strong enough to resist. Increase heat to medium. If your bacon didn’t release 3 tablespoons’ worth of fat, add some reserved bacon fat (keep a can in your fridge!) or, less desirably, butter (I had some bacon fat leftover from making some with breakfast – hey, if you’re going to be gluttonous, make a day of it, I guess – and I used that. I may have used a little too much) Add the flour to the hot bacon fat and stir to make a roux. Cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat, until light golden brown. Put a strainer over the saucepan and strain the hot milk into the roux. Continue to cook, stirring often, until thickened slightly. It should coat the back of a wooden spoon to where you can draw a line through it. Stir in the grated cheese and season to taste with salt and pepper. Be aware that with the bacon grease, the cheese sauce will be a very unappetizing color. Fear not. Breathe deep the vapors of bacon and trust in its goodness.
Add the cheese sauce to the drained pasta and stir to incorporate. Fold in the chopped bacon. Spread into the prepared Pyrex dish and bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes
Sprinkle the bread crumbs over the top and bake for another 5-10 minutes, until hot and bubbly.
I totally did the breadcrumbs differently: As mentioned above, I’d made bacon with breakfast this morning, and the pan still had a bit of grease in it (I left it unwashed since I knew I’d need to cook bacon later… Don’t judge me). I added some more of the leftover bacon fat from the morning and used that instead of olive oil in hopes of having even more bacon flavor because what is better than bacon except more bacon? I just toasted the bread crumbs/panko on the stove top. It probably didn’t get as browned as it could have, but I don’t think it detracted from anything. Also, it wasn’t until typing up this blog post that I realize that I cooked this wrong: I mixed the cheese/bacon with the pasta, added the bread crumbs, and baked for 20 minutes. Everything was cooked through and the top was browned, so I think everything went OK despite this variation.
I myself am rather nonplussed with the rating. I was expecting to be raving about this recipe, singing its praises in lovingly composed paeans in the streets while joyfully frolicking and distributing bacon like beads at Mardi Gras. Perhaps I built myself up too much.
This is not to say that this mac is bad – far from it. I simply think it could be improved. Between Loverman and I, we came up with two simple improvements that would have sent this over the edge: Less breadcrumbs and more bacon. I love me some breadcrumbs, but the crust felt a bit overwhelming to me. Maybe only 1 1/2 cups would suffice? And while six strips of bacon seems a lot, the recipe makes six servings, which is only one strip of bacon per person. Maybe your willpower it stronger than mine, but if I am having bacon, I want more than just one strip. Maybe doubling the bacon called for would make this extra-indulgent, which is really what I, for one, want in a bacon mac and cheese.
Fun fact: Before even tasting a bite, while waiting for it to cool a bit, this recipe inspired me. Perhaps I was thinking of the dinner Loverman and I had out last night at one of the local restaurants, namely the dish Loverman ordered: Why not a bacon-blue mac and cheese? Wouldn’t that just be sinfully delicious? Oh, the wheels are turning, friends!