Typically I only make this special baked mac and cheese once a year for our after-church-Easter dinner. This is not a dish for the faint of heart... it is lots of butter, fat and cheesy goodness. But hey, once year it should be okay to indulge a little. I am posting it here because I made a promise to give the recipe to some young friends of ours who are getting married next month - the groom raves about it so much. Its a big ego boost for me so I feel like the least I can do for them - as they get hitched and move to California is share my recipe. We will miss you both. Enjoy and remember us when you eat it.
This recipe uses a lot of pans (i.e. there is a bit of clean up after), but as everyone who has tried this can attest... the final result it is well worth the effort. I do not add salt to this recipe because the pancetta and the Pecorino are both pretty salty, but you could add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of salt if you want to. Try it without first... I'm pretty sure you will find it salty enough.
Make ahead! You can make it all the way through pouring it into the buttered dish and then cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate until you are ready to bake. If you do make it ahead, wait to mix up the panko/butter/Pecorino topping until right before sprinkling it on top and slipping the pan it into the oven to bake.
- 8 oz. Pancetta, roughly chopped/cubed
- 1 cup Panko bread crumbs
- 3 tablespoons of butter
- a generous handful of grated Pecorino Romano
- 1 lb. pasta (elbow macaroni or spirals or whatever your favorite is... I buy a good quality Italian brand)
- 4 cups (1 quart) whole milk
- a heaping 1/3 cup all purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 24 oz. cheddar, grated
Recipe Steps:1. Butter a 9 x 12 baking dish with real butter. (I always use a European cultured unsalted butter which has a superior flavor... really).
2. If you plan to bake your mac & cheese right away you can mix up the topping now. Melt 3 tablespoons of butter and drizzle over the breadcrumbs, toss in a handful of freshly grated Pecorino Romano and toss to combine. Set aside.
3. Brown the pancetta in a large sauce pan over medium low heat until the fat is rendered and the pieces are crisp and browned on the edges. Using a slotted spoon, remove the pancetta to a bowl and set aside. Leave all that delicious pancetta fat in the pan - we are going to use it for the sauce.
4. Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until just al dente, drain, rinse with cold water & return to the pot it was cooked in.
5. While the pasta water is boiling and the pasta is cooking make the sauce.
6. Warm the quart of milk in a sauce pan on a back burner. Do not bring it to a boil, but just until small bubbles are forming on the surface. If a skin forms on the top you can skim it off and discard.
7. You are going to make a roux with the pancetta grease and flour. You could pour out the grease to measure it, but I never bother. Eyeball it... does it look like about 1/3 cup of oil? You want to have roughly equal parts oil to flour. If it seems a bit short just pour in some good olive oil. Over medium heat whisk in the flour... keep whisking for 3-4 minutes as it cooks. If it looks a little dry you can always add a little extra oil here too. Ideally, you want it to begin to turn a light brown... when it does turn the heat down to low and whisk in the the warm milk - either you can ladle it in a little bit at a time or pour it in in a steady stream whisking all the time. Keep cooking and whisking until the sauce is smooth.
8. Now remove the sauce from the heat. Stir in the pepper and mustard powder (if using).
9. Stir in the cheese a handful at a time until it is all combined.
10. Pour the cheese sauce over the warm, drained pasta in the pot and stir to combine. Add the reserved pancetta bits now and stir. Pour the pasta and sauce combo into the prepared pan.
11. If you are going to bake it now, sprinkle the panko/butter/Pecorino topping over the top and bake at 350 degrees until bubbling and the top is browned.
12. If you are making ahead, cover the pasta with plastic wrap and refrigerate until you are ready to bake. Make sure to wait to put the topping on until right before it goes into the oven.