Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Baked Bacon Mac & Cheese

I've made baked mac & cheese twice.  Both times, I was under the watchful eye of Schmambs.  But one Sunday, in an effort to reduce the number of times of eating out during the week, I thought I would try making baked mac & cheese.  Solo.  Ohmygoodness.  I can't even tell you how many text messages flew back and forth between Schmambs and myself as I perused up and down the aisles of the grocery store hoping to pick up everything I would need for the recipe.  The first time we made it, we used a recipe off All Recipes.  It was phenomenal.  But then Schmambs discovered Alton Brown's recipe on Food Network and I mean, how do you say no to Panko?  That's right.  You don't!

The first step is to start cooking the pasta while you make the cheese sauce.  I sort of had to because I only have one big pot and I needed that for cooking the pasta and making the cheese sauce.  With the pasta cooking, I thought I would get the liquid ingredients started  so that all I would have to add was the cheese once the pasta was finished cooking.  

One of the things I love about homemade mac & cheese is that you, the chef, can determine the thickness of your sauce by creating a roux.  For those of you who don't know what a roux is, Merriam-Webster defines it as "a cooked mixture of flour and fat used as a thickening agent in a soup or a sauce".  In vivz terms, it's a thickener consisting of butter, flour, and some sort of liquid.  In the case of baked mac & cheese, the liquid is milk.  Once the butter is melted in the saucepan, you whisk in the flour.  As per the recipe, along with the flour, I added mustard powder.  It sounds a bit odd...mustard powder in baked mac & cheese...really?!  But it gives the cheese sauce a nice flavor while not being overwhelming.  And since I forgot the onion at the store (it must've been all the texting back and forth that I got distracted!) I substituted with onion powder.

flour, mustard powder, onion powder, salt

One thing that surprised me was that the recipe called for milk and not cream.  The other recipe that we had tried required cream.  A lot of it!  Alton seems to know what he's doing, so I figured it might be a good idea to just follow his directions since he was the only help I was going to get this time around.  In went the milk and then all of a sudden I found myself with a saucepan full of watery milky yellow stuff.  The directions told me to let it simmer, so I did while I took the pasta off the stove and drained it.


Now while the sauce was getting all simmered and cooked and stuff, I decided to take the time to make some bacon.  Somewhere along the line, I had decided I was going to try this recipe with bacon.  Why?  Because I'm a firm believer that bacon makes everything better.  I eat meals which consist of bacon.  Nothing else.  And I think I've mentioned before, I enjoy mnicrowave bacon, which I'm not sure if that's a good thing to admit, so let's move on.  I took the shortcut of making microwave bacon because I was on a time crunch and because I still haven't perfected the art of making bacon on the stove.  A story for another time.  I couldn't help but salivate while looking at my plate of bacon.  It took a lot of will power to not eat any all of it while I prepared the cheese sauce. 


As you can see, the cheese sauce turned out a bright orange/yellow and it was melty and gooey.  I mixed in the elbow macaroni in the sauce when it was all ready and then I mixed in crumbled pieces of bacon into the pasta/sauce mixture.  Not that it needed it, I let the mixture sit for a few minutes while I prepared the panko topping.  I melted butter in a skillet and then mixed in about a cup of panko breadcrumbs.  I'm not sure if I overestimated my skillet's abilities, but the topping didn't end up like it should have.  The butter did not evenly distribute throughout the panko so it caused some of the breading to eventually just sprinkle off, despite being baked into the mac and cheese.  I also did go a little overboard with loading the tops of the mac & cheese with panko.  I guess there is such thing as too much when it comes to breadcrumbs.  The lessons we learn.

I ended up making two separate pans of the mac and cheese because a) I used LARGE elbow macaroni so it took up a lot more space and b) I'm a single young professional and there's only so much food i can consume before it goes bad.  So I was going to drop a pan off with Schmambs & Company and have them be the guinea pigs to my cooking.  I'll admit, after giving it a whirl, I realized it was a bit bland and I could have done so much more with it.  

Baked Mac & Cheese:
(adapted from Alton Brown's recipe)

1/2 box large elbow macaroni
* 3 tablespoons butter
* 3 tablespoons flour
* 1 tablespoon powdered mustard
* 3 cups milk
* 1 tablespoon onion powder
* 1/2 teaspoon paprika
* 12 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded
* 1 teaspoon kosher salt 
* Fresh black pepper
* 8 slices of bacon, crumbled (this is only a suggestion.  use as much bacon as you want!
* 3 tablespoons butter (for the topping)
* 1 cup panko breadcrumbs (for the topping)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling water until it's "al dente".  Drain the pasta when done.  While the pasta is cooking, melt 3 tablespoons of butter in another saucepan or pot.  Whisk in the flour, mustard powder, and onion powder until it's lump-free.  Slowly mix in the milk and paprika.  Make sure everything is mixed evenly and there are no lumps.  Then let the mixture simmer for about ten minutes.
While it's simmering, cook 8 strips (or however many slices desired) of bacon.  Let the oil drain and then crumble it up.  Put aside.  Stir in the cheese (a little bit at a time) to the milky mixture.  Stir until cheese is all melted and your mixture is all gooey.   Add salt and pepper to your liking.  Then add the bacon.  Once everything is evenly mixed, pour it into the macaroni and stir until all the pasta is evenly coated.  
While you're mixing the pasta and cheese together, melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan.  When it's melted, add the panko breadcrumbs and coat it evenly with the butter.  Depending on what type of pan you're using, you may want to spray it with some sort of cooking spray.  My spray of choice is PAM.  This will keep the cheese sauce from sticking to the edge.  Once everything is done, distribute the pasta and sauce in two 8x8 pans.  I just used disposable aluminum square pans and they seemed to work fine.  Distribute the panko breadcrumbs over the macaroni in both pans.  Place pans in oven which should be 350 degrees and bake for 30 minutes.  I can usually tell it's done once the breadcrumbs start to brown.  You don't want to overcook it or you'll have dry mac & cheese.

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