Have you ever had Kraft Macaroni & Cheese? I would hazard a guess that (if you grew up in the U.S.) your answer would be yes, mine included. However, my introduction to the famous blue box came much later, during college. I didn’t appreciate it then but my mother, aside from the occasional pizza delivery or weekly restaurant visits, always prepared a home-cooked meal. We lived in a lenient household where chips and candy were allowed but somehow we never got into the habit of eating conveniently-packaged meals.
So when a friend, during a college study “date”, prepared this for me, it made quite the impression. It was cheesy and gooey and the can of tuna that was added to the pot made it seem even more special. If you think I jest…not so. I enjoyed that bowl of mac and cheese, I won’t deny it. In fact, I found myself craving it on occasion after that evening (and buying it). I hadn’t yet tasted a made-from-scratch macaroni and cheese dish, but perhaps more importantly, the young man who prepared it for me was the object of a major case of puppy love.
I still wouldn’t consider myself a macaroni and cheese connoisseur but these days I find myself favoring the made-from-scratch version. But guess what? I haven’t tried making it myself until now. It’s not because I haven’t wanted to; the one recipe I’ve longed to try is Martha Stewart’s version which has gained quite a following over the years. It just hasn’t happened.
How fortuitous that my refrigerator and freezer were in dire need of a clean up this weekend. I had some frozen cooked orecchiette leftover from another meal, some pancetta, various cheeses and cartons of milk; immediately, mac and cheese came to mind. I used my go-to béchamel recipe and added a combination of sharp cheddar, medium cheddar and edam cheese. The latter, called queso de bola in the Philippines, is a Dutch cheese that is very popular on the filipino holiday table. It’s sharp, dry and nutty and with dry mustard, nutmeg and a bit of cayenne, the cheese sauce was quite a lucky first try. It was creamy and cheesy but not cloyingly so. It also reheated well the next day.
The orecchiette also lent well to this dish for its toothsome quality–it held up well without getting mushy in the cheese sauce. The dish would have been fine just like this but the addition of pancetta added even more welcome richness. The final product was crunchy on top from the browned cheese and a sprinkling of Panko bread crumbs while the inside was smooth, cheesy and creamy. Have I mentioned this was cheese and creamy? Just checking. I served this with a plate of chopped tomatoes for a bit of balance; a winning meal. I’ve still yet to try Martha Stewart’s version but I may have already found my go-to mac and cheese. No more experiments required.
Baked Orecchiette with Pancetta: My Version of Mac and Cheese
* I didn’t use all the cheese but feel free to do so. I had just under 1/2 cup left over.
* I didn’t use all the pancetta either. I had about 1/3 cup left and I found this was also enough.
* This will serve 2 people as a light meal.
- 2 cups combination of medium cheddar and sharp cheddar, grated
- 1 cup Edam cheese, grated (you can substitute gruyere, Manchego or any other sharp cheese)
- 2 1/3 cups milk (I happened to have 1/2 cup half and half, 1/3 cup cream and the remainder, 1% lowfat milk
- 2 – 2/12 cups cooked Orecchiette
- 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
- 2 1/2 tablespoons butter
- 2 1/2 tablespoons flour
- pinch salt
- Ground white pepper
- Panko bread crumbs, for sprinkling on top
- Pancetta (I used the Trader Joes pancetta cubes that come in a 12-oz package)
Preheat your oven to 375ºF. If you need to cook pasta first, bring a pot of water to a boil.
Cook the pancetta in a small pan. I wanted to caramelize the meat a bit and render some of the fat.
Prepare the cheese sauce: Warm the milk in a separate pan and keep at just under boiling point. Melt the butter in another saucepan over medium-low heat. When melted, add the flour and whisk until smooth. Turn the heat up to medium and cook the mixture until you get a light amber color. This will take about 5-6 minutes. Use a flat whisk and stir almost constantly to prevent uneven cooking. Add the milk in 1/2 cup – 3/4 cup increments, making sure the milk is combined well with the roux (flour and butter) before adding more. When all the milk has been added, cook for about 8 minutes, stirring constantly. The sauce will thicken slowly. Remove from heat and add salt (to taste), freshly grated nutmeg, cayenne pepper, dry mustard and ground white pepper. Then add the cheese. I started with about two cups and added as I needed. I found that around 2 to 2 1/4 cups was sufficient. Stir the pasta into the cheese sauce, as well as a bit of the pancetta. Again, I found that I didn’t need all of the pancetta I cooked.
Pour the mixture into one baking dish or two smaller ones like I did here and sprinkle a little more cheese on top. Bake for 15 minutes if you used small shallow dishes like I did. After this time, pull the dish(es) out of the oven and sprinkle some Panko bread crumbs for crunch (just a very single layer) and a bit more pancetta for color. Bake for another 10 minutes or so until the top is golden brown.