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Holy balls. This is the perfect recipe for those of you who like to enjoy a big bowl of macaroni and cheese for dinner and absolutely nothing else. It’s beautifully flavored, creamy, cheesy, and with the smokey bite of crisp salty bacon on top?? Oh man, you guys are in for a treat — I’m not even kidding. It’s amazing.
I had a few things laying around that I wanted to use up, and initially I wanted to make some sort of pasta/chicken dish. Then I decided I wanted a grown and sexy version of macaroni and cheese, and what better way to make anything grown and super sexy than to add bacon to it? Duh…bacon makes everything sexy, it’s not just a fact — it’s science. I left the bacon out of the actual mac n cheese mixture because I wanted it to stay crispy, and it just tastes better on top.
This mac n cheese…you guys…this stuff is incredible. After finishing a plate, the only thing I could utter was “Wow, that was f*cking amazing…”. To be even more honest, I didn’t wanna share this recipe lol. It’s just so good. It’s not something you’d want to eat every day, but it’s definitely a delicious “once in a while” treat. There are herbs in this baby that send it over the top with so much flavor and aroma, then you’ve got the three cheeses working together like their paychecks depend on it…and to top it all off, there’s a crusty layer of salty bacon supported by seasoned breadcrumbs. Oh dear Lord, it’s so luscious. Best thing about it — it reheats well. I’ve reheated a bowl and it stays creamy and cheesy, and very low on excess oil — win!!
By the way, this is this version 2 (version 1 is here)
DO NOT USE PRE-SHREDDED CHEESE!!!
Please for the love of all things gooey, do not buy packs of pre-shredded cheese for this recipe. It just doesn’t melt well at all and has that weird anti-caking powder all over it. Always shred the cheese yourself. Always. I shredded an 8oz. block of Cabot New York Extra Sharp White Cheddar, which you can find just about anywhere — but any extra sharp white cheddar will work. I also shredded some whole milk mozzarella (the low-moisture kind, ask your deli guy to help you find it if you don’t see it out), and I used a little finely grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese. It was perfection. I know it may seem weird to add nutmeg to a recipe like this, but to be completely honest — it really enhances the dish in way that doesn’t leave you saying “Hey! I totally taste nutmeg”. It’s super subtle despite adding a nice punch. It provides more of an aroma that really brings out the flavors all of the other ingredients and ties them together in a deliciously cheesy bind. It doesn’t make it sweet at all, it’s just an earthy essence that makes this dish so special. You only need a generous pinch here, about 1/8 teaspoon or less. One note about the garlic, please don’t use that pre-minced crap in the jar. It’s not yummy and it won’t be good for this recipe, so please use real garlic cloves that you have to peel and mince yourself. This dish is about real, grown up flavors…no shortcuts. The little bit of extra effort is so worth it here. Use cavatappi pasta here, I’m serious…it’s got a great big bite, it holds sauce well and it’s pretty.
This recipe is super easy, pretty damn fool-proof, and can be done in less than an hour. To reduce “kitchen panic” and hysteria, prep beforehand. Have your cheeses shredded, your herbs chopped, garlic minced and ready to go. You can also fry your bacon ahead of time! Again, this is beefed up to be eaten as a main course — you could serve it as a side dish though, totally up to you.
I’m using cavatappi pasta, but only half the box. I prefer cavatappi for this recipe because it’s a larger bite of pasta and evens everything out proportionally. A penne rigate would also work for this recipe. Also pictured are 2 cups of shredded New York Extra Sharp White Cheddar, 1 cup of shredded mozzarella, and 1/2 cup of grated parmigiano-reggiano. 2 tablespoons of chopped basil, 1 tsp each of chopped rosemary and thyme, 4 cloves of minced garlic, and 2 tablespoons of chopped green onion…oh, and 3 cups of half & half.
Fry your bacon in the oven…it just saves up stovetop space. I fried mine on 400 for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, get some water boiling in a tall pot…once it starts boiling, add salt…then add your pasta and let it boil for about 5 minutes. Drain the pasta and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process, set aside.
Ooh! bacon is done
Drain the bacon on a paper towel and blot thoroughly to remove any large amounts of excess oil
Chop the bacon
Melt the butter over medium heat…
Add the flour and whisk vigorously to remove any lumps…
Allow this mixture to simmer like this for about a minute to cook the raw flour flavor out.
Add one cup of the half & half and whisk vigorously to remove lumps. Adding just a little half & half in the beginning helps prevent a lumpy cheese sauce later…
this is after adding just 1 cup of half & half…its nice and thick and smooth, ready for the remaining 2 cups
Add the last 2 cups of half & half, rosemary, thyme, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, garlic, and nutmeg. Increase the heat to medium-high until it starts to simmer and thicken, about 5 minutes. You should be whisking frequently here to avoid any flour deposits from forming on the bottom layer of the pan.
After about 5 minutes, the mixture should thicken and look like this in the pot.
But the real test to know when it’s ready for the cheese is to see if it coats the back of a spoon like this
Remove the pot from the heat and add the cheddar and parmigiano-reggiano cheese. Stir until all of the cheese is melted and the mixture is smooth, about a minute or so.
Either in the same pot, or in a separate large bowl, combine the pasta and cheese mixture and toss to evenly coat. Add the basil and green onion.
Gently mix everything together
Pour half of the pasta and cheese mixture into a lightly greased baking dish (I used a few quick sprays of PAM on a 9″dia.x2.25″H pie dish). Sprinkle half of the mozzarella cheese over the entire first layer…
Then pour the last bit of pasta and cheese mixture on top of the first layer, and sprinkle the remaining mozzarella cheese on top
With a butterknife or spoon, gently swirl the mixture together to combine all of the mozzarella cheese throughout the entire dish. I layer the cheese like this so that it doesn’t melt 100% during prep — I want it to melt in the oven.
Top with the chopped bacon…
Then sprinkle the seasoned bread crumbs on top (my favorite brand is 4C)
This was some reserved pasta water just in case I needed it….I didn’t need it lol. Bake the macaroni and cheese on the middle oven rack on 400 for 25-35 minutes or until bubbly and golden brown all over…
Amazing…the flavors going on here are so delicious. You’ve gotta make this.
It’s so creamy and so cheesy…oh and that bacon on top?? Wooooo…
Make this stuff immediately, and try not to slap your mother. The only thing I’d do differently next time, is add more bacon lol. Enjoy!
copyright 2012 CarnalDish
- ½ lb dried cavatappi pasta
- 3 cups half & half
- 3 tbsp butter
- 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 2 cups Cabot New York Sharp Cheddar, shredded (sold as an 8oz. block of cheese)
- 1 cup whole milk mozzarella, shredded
- ½ cup parmigiano-reggiano, finely grated
- 1 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
- 1 tsp fresh thyme
- 2 tbsp fresh basil, chopped
- 1½ to 2 tbsp green onion, chopped
- 4 cloves fresh garlic, minced (not the stuff in the jar)
- generous pinch of nutmeg (about 1/8 tsp or less)
- generous pinch of cayenne pepper (about 1/8 tsp or less)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 6 slices of semi-crisp hardwood smoked bacon, chopped (feel free to use more if you'd like)
- ¼ cup seasoned Italian breadcrumbs (optional)
- *Salt to season the pasta water
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
Line a large baking sheet with foil and lay each slice of bacon down with at least an inch of space between each slice. Place the baking sheet full of bacon on the lowest rack of your oven and let it cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until crisp but still pliable. It will crisp even further once it's baked, so don't crisp it too much at this stage. Drain on paper towels and chop into bite sized pieces. Set aside.
In a large pot, boil water for your pasta. Once it starts to boil, season with about a tablespoon of salt and stir to dissolve. Add the pasta and boil for 5 minutes. Reserve one cup of the pasta water just in case. Drain the pasta and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. Don't toss the pasta around, just let it sit while you rinse it -- this helps keep some of the starch in place. Drain the cold water and let the cooled off pasta hang out on the sidelines while you make the cheese sauce.
Rinse the pot you boiled the pasta in with cold water to cool it off completely then place back on top of your stove over medium heat. Add the butter to melt -- once it starts to foam/sizzle, it's ready for the flour. Add the flour and whisk vigorously until smooth and lump-free. Let this cook for 1 minute to get that "raw flour" flavor out. Add 1 cup of the half & half, and continue to whisk vigorously until smooth, about 20 to 30 seconds. Add the remaining 2 cups of half & half and continue whisking. Add the rosemary, thyme, kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, cayenne pepper, nutmeg, and minced garlic -- mix well. Taste it! Adjust the seasoning as you need to. Increase the heat to medium-high and allow the mixture to come up to a simmer -- whisking the whole time. The mixture will thicken very quickly so don't walk away from it. It should take about 5 minutes to start simmering. Once the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, remove it from the heat completely. Add the parmigiano-reggiano and cheddar cheese and stir gently until it's melted and smooth, about a minute or two. Either in the same pot or in a separate large bowl, combine the cooked and cooled off pasta with the cheese sauce. Gently fold together until it's completely coated. Mixture should be slightly loose but very creamy and easy to work with, if it's too thick, thin it out with a little of the starchy pasta water. Fold in the basil and green onion at the last minute.
Transfer half of the pasta and cheese mixture to a lightly greased baking dish (I used about 4 quick sprays of PAM cooking spray). Sprinkle ½ cup of the mozzarella cheese over the first half of the pasta/cheese mixture, then pour the remaining pasta/cheese mixture on top as a second layer -- add the remaining mozzarella cheese on top. Gently swirl a spoon or butterknife thru the mac and cheese mixture to ensure the mozzarella cheese is evenly combined throughout the dish. Sprinkle the top with the bacon and breadcrumbs.
Bake in a 400 degree oven on the middle oven rack for 25-35 minutes, or until golden brown on top and bubbly all over.
Allow the dish to cool for about 10 minutes before you dive in (trust me, it's molten-lava hot!).