If you know me or have searched around on the blog much, then it comes as no surprise that I love macaroni and cheese. I’ve made it more than a couple of times and have tried lots of variations. But I have two basic recipes that are my favorites, this one from Martha and this one from The Pioneer Woman. Both are great jumping off points for creating different types of meals based on what you choose to add in. They are similar, creamy baked pasta dishes but Ree’s uses an egg, less milk and cheese, Martha doesn’t use an egg but uses twice as much milk and more cheese. They have similar cooking processes and both yield tremendously tasty results. Pioneer Woman doesn’t call for bread crumbs, but if I have them around I almost always use them. There is just something about a crunchy topping on a creamy pasta dish that does me in. Heaven.
For this macaroni and cheese I used the Martha recipe as my base and added in cooked crumbled bacon, caramelized shallots and fresh thyme. I made 4 of these individual servings and had plenty left over to fill a 9×13 casserole. If you don’t make any little servings it will still all fit in a 9×13. I sometimes make two smaller casseroles and freeze one for a day when I know I won’t have time to make dinner. If you do freeze it don’t go through with the baking step prior to freezing. Wrap your pan in plastic wrap then foil. Let it thaw in the fridge overnight then bake (with foil only!) for 20 minutes, then uncovered for another 20-30 depending on the size of the pan. This macaroni can be served as a main course, which is what I usually do, paired with a green salad. Or it can be a side dish and is a great addition to a pot luck table.
The thought of making a roux is one that may seem daunting if you haven’t done it before. It does sound like a fancy cooking skill, but it’s really simple and kind of wonderful. I love the way the butter and flour smell together as they’re cooking. This whisk from Pampered Chef is the one I always use when making a roux or sauce. It doesn’t scratch my pan and can get up next to the edges of the pan like a normal whisk cannot. It’s also great at breaking up lumps. But it’s a pain to clean, so soak it right after you’re done with it to avoid stress at dish washing time. In addition to a good whisk, you also need a nice big saucepan and uninterrupted time. You can’t go browse Pinterest or finish that episode of whatever you were watching while you make the roux and cheese sauce. Do that while the macaroni is in the oven. If you don’t whisk it fairly constantly you run the risk of getting a lumpy sauce or even burning it and having to start over. It doesn’t take a terribly long time, but it is active time. The first step of cooking the butter and flour happens especially fast. So just be attentive.
The cheese. It’s an important factor in macaroni and cheese, of course. You can tell if you use really good cheese. But your macaroni won’t be at all bad if you use normal grocery store cheese. I used Target brand sharp white cheddar and a nice little block of real gruyere. Use whatever you want, cheddar, colby, sharp, mild, etc. But don’t use low fat cheese. That’s just plain silly. And remember that changing cheeses changes the final product, so mix cheeses and additions that pair well.
The milk. 2% is just fine. You can use whole if you’re really going to go for it, but it’s not necessary to achieve a nice creamy sauce. Do not forget the salt! If the sauce tastes a little too salty, that’s ok because you’re mixing it with a pound of non flavorful pasta.
The pasta. I like penne, a little more adult of a pasta than elbow, but elbow is just fine. You can use fussili or farfalle (bowtie) but I personally like the tubular pasta noodles for macaroni and cheese.
The bacon. I used center cut, baked it in the oven then chopped it up. I used 6 slices (sorry I don’t have the ounce amount!) but could’ve easily done 8 and maybe even 10. Leave the bacon out if you’re looking for a meatless dish, or substitute ham or another meat.
The shallots. I love shallots. They’re sweeter than onions are are a wonderful addition to this dish. I used 3 large shallots, sliced them thinly and sauteed them in a little butter and olive oil over medium-low heat until they were nice and evenly browned without burning. If they begin to darken too much, add a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and continue cooking. You can use a yellow onion, the flavor will just be slightly different but still delicious.
This creamy, cheesy and delicious baked pasta dish is real comfort food and something that is sure to please just about everyone. Enjoy!
Bacon and Caramelized Shallot Macaroni and Cheese
Adapted from Martha Stewart
Serves 6-8 as a main dish or 10-12 as a side dish
- 6-8 slices of center cut bacon, cooked and chopped or crumbled
- 3 large shallots, peeled and sliced thinly
- 8 tablespoons butter, divided, + 1/2 tablespoon to saute the shallots
- 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 pound penne pasta
- 1/2 cup flour
- 5 and 1/2 cups milk
- kosher salt
- black pepper
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
- 16 ounces sharp cheddar, grated (1 cup reserved for topping)
- 6 ounces gruyere cheese, grated (1/2 cup reserved for topping)
- 1 and 1/2 cups panko crumbs
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Caramelize the shallots: Heat 1/2 tablespoon of butter and 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil in a small pan over medium heat, add shallots, stir and cook for a couple minutes until shallots start to gain some color and soften slightly. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until shallots are caramel in color and very soft. Do not let them burn. If they are browning too quickly you can lower the heat slightly or add a tablespoon of water and continue to cook. This should take 10 minutes or so. Set shallots aside.
- Heat a large pot of water to cook the penne. While it is coming to a boil, make the cheese sauce. Heat 6 tablespoons of butter in a large pan over medium heat, once it is melted add the flour and whisk for a minute. Slowly pour in about 1 cup of the milk and whisk until mixture thickens, being sure to whisk out any lumps. Continue adding the milk, a cup at a time, whisking until slightly thickened until the last addition of milk (this can be 1 1/2 cups). Whisk until slightly thickened.
- Remove from the heat and add in salt (at least 1 teaspoon) pepper to taste, thyme, and all the cheese except that reserved for topping. Stir to combine and melt the cheese until mixture is smooth. Taste and season.
- Salt boiling water and add the pasta. Cook 2 minutes fewer than the package instructs, then drain and add to the cheese sauce along with the shallots and bacon. Stir well to combine everything. NOTE: You may reserve some of the shallots to sprinkle on top, 2 tablespoon is enough.
- Grease ramekins or casserole dish and spoon pasta into the dishes. Top with reserved cheese, then shallots.
- Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and toss with the panko crumbs. Spread crumbs evenly over the cheese and bake for 30 minutes. Ramekins can bake for about 20, make sure to place them on a baking sheet to catch drips.
- Let cool for a few minutes before serving.