Some people say “I love you” with cards and flowers. Others do it with mac and cheese.
Here in the South, baked mac and cheese seems to be a dietary requirement; it’s on nearly every menu that in any way boasts a connection to “soul food” and can be found both as dressed up rotini with a fancy cheese sauce made from gruyere AND unfussy elbows tossed in a Velveeta solution. One thing all of these versions have in common is their unequivocal deliciousness…one doesn’t even mind that with each forkful their arteries are clogging and, with each second helping they are solidifying a pending commitment at the gym. Sometimes, the heart just wants cheesy carbs and, being a heart-leading individual, I find this echo of longing hard to stave off for more than a week or two.
If you are reading this, chances are you too enjoy a sinfully large heap of steaming, cheese-coated noodles from time to time. I won’t bother you with the nutrition facts of today’s recipe, as sometimes it truly is better not to know.
What I will say is, it is really hard to have a bad day when you’re eating bacon, cheese, hamburger meat, and spiced breadcrumbs all in one bite. Believe me. I tried. And I wasn’t even mad to eat this as dinner for several days in a row…or lunch, for that matter. Mac and cheese is just kind of magical that way.
If you have children or are trying to pinch pennies, this recipe is especially for you. Each serving is incredibly filling and offers a significant amount of protein, and definitely has enough, erm, caloric value to keep even your most athletic family member going from lunch until dinner. Add a vegetable and a salad to your plate and you’ve got a “balanced” meal! (If you’re feeling particularly virtuous, throw some chopped cauliflower into your pasta water in the last few minutes before al dente and mix in with the ground beef and cheese sauce…but let’s just say this dish has no intentions of claiming to be “healthy”…)
Mac and Cheese Facts
- Thomas Jefferson’s black chef, James Hemmings, is the first known person to cook mac and cheese in America.
- Cheese dates back around 10,000 years and was originally made as a way to preserve farm fresh milk.
- The first cheese factory opened in the United States in 1851, which caused cheddar cheese to be one of the first foods affected by the Industrial Revolution.
- Velveeta cheese has over 22 ingredients and is no longer regulated as a cheese.
- Kraft mac and cheese was originally created in order to provide the cheapest protein to American families possible.
- The recipe for macaroni and cheese likely originated from Northern Europe, though the first record of a recognizable recipe dates back to 1769.
For more on mac and cheese, check out this article from the Smithsonian.
Good lord, it looks like nearly equal parts cheese and pasta…oh well. Who’s complaining about this? I ask the reader! Bacon and lean hamburger meat make delightful additions to the bubbling, cheesy pasta, which, as you can see here, consisted of two different pasta shapes I was trying to get rid of. This is a comfort food, not a gastronomic masterpiece, after all.
I cooked the bacon slices then snipped into bits using kitchen shears, then browned the beef in the bacon fat, which I reserved when the meat was done. Featured next to these two plates is a bowl full of panko breadcrumbs, seasoned with oregano, garlic salt, onion salt, and paprika.
What we have here is cheesy, meaty noodles. 🙂 I made a simple roux using the reserved bacon/beef fat and butter, then added milk and grated cheese. In go the cooked noodles and ground beef, then bacon bits, breadcrumbs, and a sprinkling of grated parmesan for good measure. Bake at 375°F for 20 minutes or until the breadcrumbs are beginning to brown. Broil on hi for a few minutes if you want it extra crispy.
Add something green to your plate to pretend you are a grown up and enjoy the fruits of your labor; now pull out your colander and get ready to make mac and cheese! 🙂
Everything But The Kitchen Sink Baked Mac & Cheese
- Dutch oven
- 3-4 pieces thick cut bacon, cooked, chopped, and with rendered fat reserved
- 1 16 oz package of ground beef, lean is ok
- 1 1/2 cups panko, unseasoned
- 1 tsp paprika, smoked or unsmoked
- 2 tsp Italian seasoning (or substitute equal parts dried oregano and parsley)
- 3/4 tsp garlic salt
- 3/4 tsp onion salt
- freshly cracked pepper, to taste
- sea salt, to taste
- 16 oz pasta, shape of your choice--rotini is great for maximum sauciness
- 4 Tbs butter, salted or unsalted
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 2 cups grated cheese, tightly packed (cheddar is classic but feel free to sub gruyere or gouda)
- 1 cup grated parmesan
- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- In a large pan over medium-high heat, cook bacon until cooked but not quite crispy. Snip into 1/4" strips or roughly chop and set aside.
- In the same skillet used to cook the bacon, brown the ground beef over medium heat. Using a slotted spoon, remove beef and drain on a plate covered in paper towels. Pour any remaining fat from the pan into a dish to use later. You should have about 1 tablespoon.
- Mix breadcrumbs and spices in a small bowl and set aside.
- Bring a pot of heavily salted water to boil on the stove. Meanwhile, grate the cheese. Boil pasta until just cooked, 8-12 minutes depending on the shape. Drain in a colander over the sink. If you are worried about the pasta sticking into one mass while you make the roux, reserve enough cooking water to keep the pasta wet while you prepare the cheese sauce. Pasta cooking water contains starch which prevents the pasta from sticking together.
- In a medium-sized dutch oven, heat butter and reserved bacon fat over medium heat. Once the butter has melted, turn heat down to low and add flour, whisking until incorporated. Cook the flour over low heat until it foams and turns a golden brown, about 2 minutes.
- Slowly add milk, whisking continuously, until fully incorporated. It may seem liquidy at first; add the grated cheddar (or alternative) cheese and whisk until the cheese has fully melted.
- Add cooked ground beef and drained pasta to the dutch oven and stir until fully incorporated.
- Dress the top of the mixture with the cooked bacon bits. Sprinkle the spiced bread crumbs over the top of the pasta until fully covered. Add an even layer of parmesan over the top and bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. If you desire crispier breadcrumbs, broil over high heat for several minutes. Serve immediately!