Macaroni + cheese + pancetta = Smack & Cheese

Mac and Cheese with Pancetta

Macaroni and cheese: what can be said that hasn't already? Like apple pie or chocolate cake, it's a dish that's probably been retooled and remade countless times, because like a good friend, mac and cheese is there for you when you're down and troubled and need a helping hand. Do you need another mac and cheese recipe? I can't really say. But, herein, I will do my best to convince you that in this macaroni and cheese recipe you've indeed, Dear Reader, got a friend. Hopefully you're mentally singing James Taylor by now, in which case, you're my kind of people. 

This dish, like so many of my recent food inspirations, is a recipe I discovered sitting at the family dinner table of my landlords/friends/neighbors/alternate family. They call it Smack and Cheese. It's kind of a special treat, but also a family staple; a birthday dinner, or a weekly meal. I've eaten it at least a half dozen times at their house, and every time I do, it leaves me thinking about it long after. My first thoughts usually involve cursing and superlative affirmations of the superiority of this particular mac and cheese. Next comes something like "how much more of this can I fit in my stomach?" The final thoughts are generally some pontifications in the category of wondering just what makes it so good. When I started this blog, and announced it on my Instagram feed, one of my IG followers asked me if I had a good recipe for macaroni and cheese, and of course I thought of this one immediately.  But I thought, I should do a little research. So, after a few months of thinking, and reading other recipes, and generally scratching my head about whether or not this really is the best macaroni and cheese, I decided it was time to definitively state that while I will always be willing to try another mac & cheese, I will still probably think this one is the best. And so, dear readers, here is the current title holder for my favorite macaroni and cheese, AKA Smack & Cheese.

When I asked my friends who introduced me to this fine dish for the recipe/where they got it, they said they didn't remember exactly where, but that it was in an article about the family meals served at restaurants. Do you guys know what that is? If you've worked in the food/beverage industry, no doubt you do. But for the rest of you: family meal is what they call the (usually) pre-shift dinner made by the cooks for the entire staff before the start of dinner service each night. It's a time to regroup, and break bread, and generally have a little fun together before the craziness of the night. It's team time, and it's maybe one of the best things about working in a restaurant, IMHO. But I digress. Armed with that info, I let my fingers do the walking to the interwebs, and lo and behold, it was originally published in a 2008 issue of Bon Appetit. It's old enough that the original article isn't linked to the recipe, nor is it listed as their "best mac and cheese." It doesn't have bells and whistles like pimento mac and cheese, or butternut squash mac and cheese, or the dozen other offerings listed in their mac and cheese recipe section, but down there at the bottom of the list, it was there. 

I was kind of hoping I would find some mac and cheese recipe that involved no roux, or didn't have to be baked, or maybe was plus/minus healthy-ish, but I finally just gave into the inevitability of sharing this recipe. As usual, this recipe passed my mono-diet test. That is, the thing that happens where I make a dish to share with you all, and then wind up eating it daily for at least a week. I never got sick of it, I always looked forward to it, and it never let me down in the MAN THIS IS GOOD, WHAT THE ACTUAL @%#!! category. So, even though this is a multi-step, kind of to-do dish, who cares? Live a little, you won't be sorry. Just try not to eat it all off of a wooden spoon, before you ever get to the baking part, because as good as it is pre-baking, it's even better after. 


SMACK & CHEESE

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 stick of butter, divided into chunks
  • 4 oz of pancetta, cut into small pieces 
  • 1 large finely chopped yellow onion 
  • 1-3 minced or crushed garlic cloves
  • optional: 3/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 3-3.5 cups of milk
  • 2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
  • 2 cups grated extra sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
  • 8 oz container of Mascarpone cheese
  • Salt & pepper for seasoning
  • 1.5 cups panko breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsely
  • 1 pound Cavatappi (twisted noodles) or large elbow macaroni

DIRECTIONS

preheat oven to 350 degrees
  1. Brown that bacon. Melt a TBS or so of butter, and cook the pancetta over medium-ish heat until somewhere between cooked through and crispy.
  2. Add the onion. Add the finely chopped onion into the pancetta mix and cook until translucent.
  3. Add the spices. Minced or crushed garlic, and crushed red pepper if using: choose your own adventure. I like crushed because I'm lazy, and I use the red pepper because it adds a little depth. Stir both in for a minute or so.
  4. Make a roux. Add about 3 TBS more butter and melt. Sprinkle the flour over the mix, and stir in. Then add about 3 cups of milk gradually, whisking it all together. Let the mixture simmer and thicken until it coats the back of a spoon well. Look for added viscosity, not crazy thickness. This should take about 5 minutes.
  5. Remove from heat & get cheesy. Turn off your burner, and start mixing in the cheese. Start with the Mascarpone, and once that's melted, begin to add the sharp cheddar cheeses stirring continuously to mix and melt. Finally, add the Parmesan until fully incorporated. If you need to add another 1/4-1/2 cup of milk, now's the time. Your end result should be thick, but pourable. Season with salt and pepper to your liking. Set aside. 
  6. Cook the pasta. Whichever noodle you choose, cook it until it's on the al dente side of al dente. You want your noodle to have some structure, because it still has to stand up to baking. Drain when finished. Don't let it linger in the water or it will overcook.
  7. Get your panko going. While you are boiling the pasta, melt the last of your butter, about 3-4 TBS in a skillet and cook the panko breadcrumbs to a light golden brown over medium heat, being careful not to burn it. It should only take about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in parsley.
  8. Put it all together. Pour the cheese sauce over the cooked noodles, stir to fully coat all of the pasta. Transfer the cheesy noodles to a well greased 13x9x2 casserole dish, spreading the mixture evenly in the pan. Sprinkle the top with panko and transfer to the oven on a baking sheet.
  9. Bake to golden brown. Honestly, the whole kit wont change much. You just want the heat to warm everything through, and to glue the panko to the noodles. It wont look much changed, but the majesty of the dish really comes together in the oven. 
Adapted from Pancetta Macaroni and Cheese, by Matthew Porco, first published in Bon Appetit.

TIPS!

  1. I buy my pancetta pre-cut in a 4 oz. package at Whole Foods. Convenient! Try to use pancetta though, not regular bacon.
  2. Don't fuss over the onion quantity. The original recipe calls for 1 cup of onion, but I found a large one just adds more to the party. 2 mediums would probably also be fine.
  3. The red pepper will bring a little extra heat. For the spice sensitive leave it out. Likewise garlic - don't care for it? Reduce to one clove. 
  4. Vis a vis the roux, Bon App's recipe calls for 3.5 cups+ of milk. I find that 3.5 is enough, and I have even done fine with 3 cups. As with all rouxs, just adjust for the right thickness. The extra milk is in case your cheese sauce thickens so much that you need it, but I never do.
  5. You can make this recipe with just regular sharp cheddar cheese, or even mild cheddar cheese. I think the addition of the extra sharp brings some very pleasant noise. If you're an I like it mild kind of person, do what you think is best. The Mascarpone lends creaminess, and the Parmesan brings some personality. Do it your way.
  6. Speaking of personality, my pals who passed me this recipe like to sprinkle Parmesan on top of the panko, and they usually skip the parsley.
  7. I think the twisty noodles are the best. You can kind of use anything, but I wouldn't recommend long noodles like spaghetti.
  8. In my experience, the casserole size was perfect. If you don't have that, just break it up in the sizes you have and bake more than one.
  9. This recipe can easily be halved. You can also do-ahead the cheese sauce and panko steps a day in advance.

Pancetta mac and cheese