Bacon Mac ‘N Cheese

By Damaris Galeano

This recipe is chock full of gooey cheese and an explosion of flavor
This recipe is chock full of gooey cheese and an explosion of flavor

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 smoky bite of crisp salty bacon on top? Holy cheese, you guys are in for a treat. I’m not even kidding. It’s amazing.
This mac n cheese…you guys…this stuff tastes so good. To be even more honest, I didn’t want to share this recipe. It’s just so good. It’s not something you’d want to eat every day (summer body, ya know), 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. 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!
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 know it may seem weird to add nutmeg to a recipe like this, but to be completely honest — it really enhances the dish. 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 stuff 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. The little bit of extra effort is so worth it. Cavatappi pasta is great for this recipe, it’s got a great big bite, it holds sauce well and it’s pretty.
To reduce kitchen panic, 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.
To begin, preheat your oven to 400 degrees and 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. Them 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 butter knife through 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!).
You’ve got to make this. It’s so creamy and so cheesy…oh and that bacon on top? Wooooo…Make this stuff immediately. The only thing I’d do differently next time is add more bacon. Enjoy!
½ lb. dried cavatappi pasta (see note on how to double this recipe)
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 ⅛ tsp. or less)
generous pinch of cayenne pepper (about ⅛ 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)
2 to 3 tablespoons seasoned bread crumbs (optional)
*Salt to season the pasta water