During the cold winter months (stop mocking the rest of us, you Floridians) I find myself craving warm comforting foods, nothing pretentious – just the kind of warmth you can slip on like a cozy old sweater you bring out every year. Sometimes I get carried away with my justifications telling myself that, like animals of nature, I need the substantive stuff to carry me through winter. Now the right side of my brain knows I’m actually referring to a bear or another hibernating creature when I think this may be a requirement for my survival through the harsh winter days in my urban and modernly well-equipped home, but if I have a molten chocolate soufflé on my mind, or an aromatic pasta with braised beef and pancetta, the kind of logic that dissuades me from enjoying these things is not going to stop me. The truth is, rich indulgent dishes are a treasure and although they can’t be enjoyed on a consistent basis year round, unless a coronary is something you’d also be interested in having, we can certainly give into these indulgences sometimes. And I find no better time than winter, that wonderful season when the wind whips around you almost like it’s attacking you and the ground is barren without any lively color. There’s no better time to be able to come inside to a warm fireplace and a hearty yet beautiful meal that warms your bones, and quite possibly your soul. And of course if you share it, you won’t feel so glutinous now will you?
This is one of my favorite things to make on a cold winter’s day. I grew up making my family’s wonderful macaroni and cheese recipe so I’m well at home in this dish but this version is a bit modernized by more than the usual stick of cheddar. It was inspired by a few things. There was a Mac’ and Cheese dish I once had at a party and loved. It was elegant and had a creamy white medley of cheeses. Sitting there stuffing my face I had an epiphany, that I should try using the same cheeses I love to use in vegetable gratins for a macaroni and cheese dish. Then, like fate, I came across a recipe the wonderful Barefoot Contessa makes for macaroni and cheese with bacon. That’s right, bacon! I know most of you are sold right there. Now admittedly I have never made the Contessa’s recipe but as soon as I read the word bacon in her recipe, I knew I had to incorporate that into my dish. What flavor! So once again, with me in the kitchen adding a bit of this and a bit of that and with helpful inspiration, I’ve settled on a macaroni and cheese dish that is my go to recipe for company or a classy dinner at home. So of course I have to share it with you.
This will fill a 9 ½ x 14 glass dish with a little extra leftover for a small round dish to keep at home if you so sneakily choose. You can of course halve the recipe if you’ll just be making it for dinner at home. I’ve done this served alongside grilled peppercorn steaks and garlicky creamed spinach (I was trying to be very classy that night). This recipe does handle adjustments very well, don’t be afraid to take liberties.
Macaroni and Cheese
1 lb corkscrew (cavatappi) or penne pasta
12 ounces thick cut bacon
12 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated
10 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar cheese (white), grated
5 ounces Fontina cheese, grated
2 tbsp parmesan cheese, crumbled
5 or 6 nice sized sage leaves
4 slices sourdough bread (using a sourdough bread round, day old is fine too)
4 cups whole milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 °F. If the bread is fresh (not day old), leave the 4 slices out on a paper towel and set aside so they dry up a bit. Place a metal baking rack on a sheet pan and position the bacon in a layer on the rack. Bake 15 to 17 minutes, until the bacon has a nice color and is pretty crisp. Meanwhile get a stockpot of water on the stove and set the heat on high to boil the water. When the bacon is done line a plate with a couple of layers of paper towels and transfer the bacon to the plate. Let it cool. Meanwhile, salt the boiling water and add the pasta. Cook until al dente, 7-8 minutes. The bacon should be cool enough now, go ahead and cut it into ½ inch pieces while the pasta is cooking. When the pasta is done drain it in a colander. Give the pot a quick wipe inside with a paper towel so it is dry. Add the butter to the stockpot. It will start to melt immediately from the residual heat. Set it on medium low heat on the stove. Once the butter has melted add the flour and whisk quickly so the flour does not burn. Whisk continuously for 1 minute until the mixture is very smooth and a bit shiny. Add the milk SLOWLY and continue to whisk (think of it like tempering eggs, the cool milk will make the flour stiffen up a bit so adding it slowly helps the mixture emulsify better). Keep whisking for a few minutes until the mixture is hot and completely smooth. Turn off the heat. Now add the gruyere, extra-sharp cheddar, fontina, 2 teaspoons salt, 4 or 5 turns of freshly ground black pepper, and mix together. Add the drained pasta and chopped bacon. Stir well. Pour into the large glass dish and your sneaky individual dish.
Cut the crusts off of the sourdough bread. Place the bread slices in a food processor and grind for 5 seconds and then pulse for about 30 seconds until you have large crumbs. Tear the sage leaves in half just to help the processor out. Add the sage leaves and the 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese and pulse to combine with the bread. Sprinkle the crumb mixture over the pasta. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the top is browned nicely and the cheese is bubbling.