Not having any idea how to make non-Velveeta mac & cheese, I thought back to my favorite version of it; from Smoque. Smoque's has an amazingly sharp cheese in it that is not bitter enough to be cheddar, though it definitely has a bunch of cheddar in it, so I knew I had to have a blend of cheese. Next, the sauce has a slight grittiness to it that seems to help it stick to the noodles. Lastly, it is finished with some perfectly browned bread crumbs on top. I had the things I liked about it down, now all I had to do was make it happen.
To achieve the grittiness and thickness, I knew I was going to have to make a roux (butter and flour heated in a pan). However, it being bacon mac & cheese, I thought that I could substitute the butter with some rendered bacon fat...mmmmm bacon fat. I did want some butter in there just to be safe, so I melted a tablespoon of it in the bacon fat. I love it when a plan comes together.
For the cheese sauce, I decided to stir the cheddar cheese into the sauce so it got the desired orange color. I poured the sauce over the noodles and bacon and stirred it together. For the sharpness, I put a layer of parmesan cheese on top of the noodles.
Finally, I covered the parmesan with a thin layer of panko bread crumbs (like bread crumbs a superhero would eat) that were tossed with some melted butter.
After a few mishaps (like throwing the cheese in the butter insted of the bread crumbs, burning butter, flying into a fit of rage, etc.), I finally got this thing in the oven. A mere 30 minutes later it was out and piping hot. Visually, it was stunning and was everything I wanted it to be. Taste-wise, it could use some upgrades, though I still enjoyed it.
I think the main problems were with the noodles and the sauce. The noodles were overcooked and kind of mushy. I think this is because I put them into the oven only after they had been fully cooked. Next time I make a mac & cheese dish, I will cook the noodles until just before they are done (a little crunchy), instead of totally done so that they may finish cooking in the oven. Next, I would probably use a sharper (possibly aged) cheddar in the mixture for some added sharpness. I would also stir in about half or three-quarters of the parmesan cheese into the sauce and then top it with the remaining parmesan and some pecorino cheese. I feel that this will bring it to where it needs to be in terms of sharpness. Before I toss you the recipe, here is a picture
Now for the recipe:
Ingredients (easily serves 4)
1/2 box elbow macaroni, cooked
4-5 strips bacon
5 tbsp flour
1 tbsp butter
1/2 onion, diced
1 tbsp mustard
3 cups milk
1/2 tspn paprika
1/4 tspn cayenne pepper (optional if you want it spicy)
1 bay leaf
8 oz. cheddar cheese
1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1 egg, beaten
1 cup panko bread crumbs
3 tbsp butter
1. Put the elbow macaroni in a baking dish so that it is about 3/4 full. Preheat oven to 350.
2. Cook the bacon on medium low heat for about 10 minutes until it is done. Set the bacon aside on paper towels to drain and measure off 4 tbsp of bacon fat and put it in a sauce pan. Dice the bacon and toss with the macaroni.
3. Heat the saucepan over medium heat and put the 1 tbsp butter in the bacon fat. When it is all melted, add the flour and whisk until smooth (this is the roux). Cook for about 5 minutes. Add the onions and mustard and stir with a whisk for 3 minutes until onions render their juice.
4. Pour milk into the flour mixture. Add paprika, bay leaf, and cayenne (if using). Bring to a simmer and let it cook for 10 minutes. The sauce will start to look foamy and thick.
5. Put the egg in a bowl and pour a little of the hot milk mixture onto the egg. Whisk vigorously for about 30 seconds to temper the egg. Pour the egg into the saucepan.
6. Stir in the cheddar cheese an whisk for a few minutes until smooth and completely melted.
7. Pour the cheese sauce over the noodles and stir so that it fills the whole dish. It will look like there is way too much sauce, but it'll absorb and dry out n the oven.
8. Put an even layer of parmesan cheese on the top of the noodles, but do not stir it in.
9. Meanwhile, melt 3 tbsp of butter over medium-low heat. When it is melted, add the panko bread crumbs and toss to coat with the butter.
10. Spread the panko evenly on top of the parmesan cheese layer.
11. Put the baking dish in the oven for 30 minutes.
12. When you remove the dish, let it sit for 5-10 minutes to allow it to "set."