Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The best Mac and Cheese, period.

Growing up I never really cooked. I baked, and I baked a lot, but I wasn't too interested in roasting chickens or making pasta sauce. I did know how to poach, fry and scramble an egg by age 12 (that's a story for another time), but my true love in the kitchen was anything sweet.

But when I graduated college a semester early to move out to Tahoe with my (then) boyfriend (now husband), and moved into a house he shared with two other guys, I decided I needed to learn to cook. So he and his friends became my guinea pigs. The mac and cheese I first made for them (my first ever) was the baked mac and cheese out of The Joy of Cooking. (Then, as now, my Bible.) It involves making roux to make a white sauce, which needs to be simmered forever, to which is then added cheese, then cooked pasta. It's fairly simple and good stuff, but when you're making mac and cheese.... it really should be simpler.

Cue a marriage, a cross-Atlantic move, and then a pregnancy. When I was five months along I discovered this recipe in a back-issue of Bon Appetit. (The same issue that has my favorite Shepard's pie. I digress.) I discovered this recipe, and like every pregnant woman who ever read a recipe for mac and cheese, I made said recipe. And thank goodness I did, because it. is. awesome. It rocks everybody's world. Including mac and cheese haters. (They do exist. I had one over for dinner a few nights ago, served her this, and converted her.)

Not only is it divine, it is also super easy to make - you do kind of have to make a roux, but it is a rough one that goes straight into everything else, and it's not hard or scary so why even throw that intimidating french term in there?

If you want to make this tonight but don't have the marscapone, then hold off. This needs the marscapone. It also really needs some good, strong cheddar. Save the half cheddar, half mozzarella mix for your English muffin pizzas, and give this dish the real deal. However, if you want to substitute the pancetta for, say, some Vermont maple cured applewood smoked bacon - then go ahead and be my guest. It's just as delicious. I know.

Baked Mac and Cheese with Pancetta and Leek

adapted from Matthew Porco

Make sure you use a large and deep skillet to make the cheese sauce in - the skillet should be able to hold the contents of a 13x9x2 inch dish. And remember, the most important part of mac and cheese is the cheese - don't skimp on quality or quantity for this dish!

Serves 4-6 as a main dish, 8-10 as a side dish

8 tablespoons butter, divided 
4 ounces thinly sliced pancetta or very good-quality bacon, coarsely chopped 
3 large leeks, washed well, sliced lengthwise, then horizontally into 1/8 inch slices, white and pale green parts only
3/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper 
1 garlic clove, minced 
1/4 cup all purpose flour 
3 1/2 cups (or more) whole milk 
2 1/2 cups coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese 
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese 
1 8- to 8.8-ounce container marscapone cheese
1 1/2 cups panko
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley 
1 pound orecchiette 

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly butter 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. 

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in large deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add pancetta or bacon; sauté until crisp. Add leeks to the same pan; sauté until tender, about 5-10 minutes. Add crushed red pepper and garlic; stir 1 minute. Stir in 3 tablespoons butter; allow to melt, then add flour and whisk it into everything for about 1 minute. Gradually whisk in 3 1/2 cups milk; simmer until thick enough to coat spoon thickly, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Whisk in cheeses. If necessary (it never has been for me), whisk in more milk by 1/4 cupfuls until sauce is thick but pourable. Season with salt and pepper.

Melt 4 tablespoons butter in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add panko and stir until very light golden, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in parsley.

Cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain well. Add pasta to the warm cheese mixture. Transfer mixture to prepared baking dish. Sprinkle crumb mixture evenly over. Bake mac and cheese until heated through and topping is golden brown, about 30 minutes.


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