In honor of National Macaroni and Cheese day, we are taking that childhood classic and elevating it today. This is no box of elbow macaroni with orange powdered “cheese.”
This twist on a comfort food favorite combines fontina cheese for creaminess, cheddar for sharpness, jalapeño and cayenne for heat, and a grown-up twist- bourbon and candied bacon!
Start by pre-heating the oven to 350 degrees.
On a sheet pan with a rack, lay out 6 strips of your favorite thick-cut bacon. I’m using Wright’s Applewood Smoked bacon. Spread about 1 tablespoon of light brown sugar over each piece and slide it in the oven. While we are prepping everything else, the bacon will cook and crisp and the brown sugar will melt and create a crispy sweet coating on each delicious slice of porcine perfection.
For our pasta, we are going with something a little different- shells. Now you can use any pasta you want, yes, even the old stand-by, elbow macaroni. I chose shells because the shape really lends itself to holding onto the ooey-gooey sauce we are going to make.
Cook the pasta according to the box directions. You will want the pasta to be “al dente” because we are going to finish this mac and cheese in the oven and it will finish cooking there. Boil in well-salted water, strain, and drain, and set aside in a big mixing bowl.
We are using jalapeños for a fresh, green flavor, but you have total control of the heat. Split and clean the peppers removing the seeds and membranes. The heat in the pepper is in the membrane, so for a hotter dish, leave more in, we’ll be adding some cayenne later for heat, so keep that in mind. Dice the peppers and set aside.
Next we are going to make our cheese sauce. We will start with a bechamel sauce which begins with 3 tablespoons of butter melted in a pan over medium heat. To the butter, we will add 3 tablespoons of flour and we’ll “cook” the flour like this, making what is called a roux. As the flour cooks, it will lose its raw smell and begin to darken, smelling richer and nuttier. Cook this for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly with a whisk, making sure there are no lumps.
Next, add 1 ounce or one shot of bourbon. I like Knob Creek, but use your bourbon of choice. Stir for a minute, allowing some of the alcohol to cook off. Then add the remaining dry ingredients- 1 teaspoon of nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, 1 Tablespoon of mustard powder. The roux will take open a nice golden color once everything is incorporated. Slowly pour in 3 cups whole milk, whisking constantly and bring the heat to medium high. Once it begins to bubble, add in the jalapeños, reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. The sauce will begin to thicken at this point. You’ve just made bechamel sauce!
Now it is time to add the cheese. Add in 8 ounces of shredded fontina cheese, and 6 ounces of cheddar to the bechamel you have just made. When you add cheese to it, you officially transform the bechamel sauce to a mornay sauce! Sounds fancy, doesn’t it?
Pour your sauce over the pasta in the mixing bowl and fold together with a wooden spoon.
The mac and cheese can be baked in any oven-safe vessel you like. For my purposes, I’m using a muffin tin. This way, I can have some built-in portion control and once this cools and is put in the fridge, each tin can be scooped out intact to pack for lunches later in the week.
Coat the muffin pan with cooking spray and spoon in the gooey, cheesy pasta. Leave a little room in each tin, or you’ll have an overflow in the oven when it is baking. Top each one with some shredded cheddar and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
As you put the muffin tin in, take out the bacon from the oven and let it cool. This bacon, or as I call it, “pig candy,” will be the garnish on top of the individual servings of mac. If you want, you could, incorporate it into the mac instead, but that’s just a matter of personal preference.
Remove the muffin tin from the oven and allow to cool for 5-10 minutes. Garnish with “pig candy.”
Enjoy. Happy National Macaroni and Cheese Day!
8 Ounces of Uncooked Pasta Shells
6 Slices of Thick-Cut Applewood Smoked Bacon
6 Tablespoons Brown Sugar
2 Jalapeños Seeded and Diced
3 Tablespoons Butter
3 Tablespoons All-Purpose Flour
1 Teaspoon Grated Nutmeg
1/4 Teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
1 Tablespoon Mustard Powder
1 Shot of Bourbon
3 Cups Whole Milk
8 Ounces of Shredded Fontina Cheese
8 Ounces of Shredded Cheddar Cheese, Divided