What I love about homemade mac and cheese is that it consists of the basics - pasta, milk, cream, cheese, butter, and a little flour - and though simple, when combined creates something truly delicious and for many, nostalgic.
I think it goes without saying, but I love home cooking. There's no other way I would rather spend mealtime than around a table sharing homemade food with friends. However, while I usually consider myself to be the last person to throw a stone at anyone else's cooking, believing there's no room for snobbery around the supper table, there is one dish that can send me running - baked mac and cheese.
I know, everyone loves the stuff. Where I come from, people freak out over baked mac and cheese. And don't get me wrong, I love a good crowd-pleaser just as much as the next guy, but it's what's on the inside that counts. My qualm with the dish is that under that crispy buttery breadcrumb encasing that we can't get enough of, is usually a dry, bland, coagulated mess.
It's been a goal of mine for a while now to really get the hang of baked mac and cheese. You want to know the secret? Broil it. Some might call this heresy, but stop baking your mac and cheese and start putting it under the broiler - which technically makes it a gratin. My take on the dish is that if you're going to invest the time and energy into creating a rich, creamy cheese sauce from scratch, it should count for something in the end. The broiler allows you to get the golden brown crust you really want, while simultaneously keeping your sauce from escaping you.
This recipe is adapted from Bouchon by Chef Thomas Keller and is, hands down, my favorite version of mac and cheese. It's fairly easy, incredibly versatile, and sure to impress.
Baked Macaroni & Cheese with Bacon and Gruyére
Adapted from Bouchon by Chef Thomas Keller
I recommend waiting until both cheese and bacon have been added to adjust for desired saltiness since both ingredients tend to be a bit salty.
6 Tbsp butter
1 medium yellow onion, diced
6 Tbsp flour
4 cups milk
2 cups heavy cream
2 bay leaves
6 black peppercorns
6 whole cloves
freshly grated nutmeg
freshly ground pepper
6 oz (2 cups) Gruyére (or other hard Swiss cheese), divided
8 oz (half pound) bacon
16 oz (1 pound) macaroni/elbow noodles
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
3 Tbsp Panko breadcrumbs
1-2 Tbsp fresh thyme
salt to taste
To make the cheese sauce: In a saucepan or Dutch oven large enough to hold 6 cups, melt butter over medium low heat. Once butter has melted and foam subsided, add onion and a pinch of salt. Sauté for 7-8 minutes or until translucent. Sprinkle in flour and stir constantly for 3 minutes, making sure the onion, butter, and flour mixture doesn't burn or color. Add milk and cream and bring to a simmer. Once simmer is achieved, add bay leaves, peppercorns, and cloves. Simmer for 30 minutes, moderating heat between medium and medium low so that the sauce remains at a simmer, but not boiling.
IMPORTANT: If your sauce begins to scorch, do not scrape the bottom of the pan! Just pour your sauce into another saucepan and bring back to a simmer.
After sauce has simmered for 30 minutes and thickened, remove from heat and stir in freshly grated nutmeg, about 6 gratings, and fresh pepper to taste. Strain sauce into a mixing bowl or other side dish. Stir in 1 3/4 (one and three quarters) cups Gruyére until melted.
To cook bacon: Lay bacon on a cutting board, long side horizontal. Starting at one end and working your way down, cut bacon into 1/4" slices. Cook in a large skillet over medium low heat for about 10 minutes or until browned and crispy. Remove from heat and set aside.
To cook macaroni/elbow noodles: Cook according to manufacturer's instructions.
To prepare breadcrumb topping: In a separate bowl, mix together remaining 1/4 cup Gruyére, Parmesan, Panko breadcrumbs, and thyme.
To assemble: Turn broiler on high and allow oven to warm up. Combine cooked macaroni/elbow noodles, cheese sauce, and bacon. Salt to taste. Pour macaroni mixture into a 9" x 13" baking dish, or other dish large enough to hold all of the contents - mine fit perfectly into a 9 x 12 x 3 oval baking dish. Arrange breadcrumb topping atop macaroni. Place baking dish on a rimmed baking sheet under the broiler, about 6 inches away from flame, for 3-4 minutes or until top is golden brown and crisped - watching very closely so that it doesn't burn. Remove from oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes. Serve and enjoy.