Baked Orecchiette w/ Pancetta: My Version of Mac-n-Cheese


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.



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  1. You are making me hungry 🙂

    Just to think thast thiose little pieces of pasta are hand made.

    Even more impressive.


  2. I can’t lie…I am a fan of the blue box. BUT, homemade mac and cheese pretty much blows the box out of the water. I love the addition of pancetta and the choice of pasta. I would dig into that dish through my screen if I could!

    • Hi Stephanie! I have nothing against the blue box either but the homemade version was quite nice. The orecchiette worked really well here. In fact, it’s what I’ll use from now on. Thanks and have a great week!

  3. I’m kind of obsessed with mac & cheese, yet I’ve never made it from scratch myself. I think your photos are inspiration enough for me to just step away from the blue box and just do it!

  4. Heh, I will totally confess to loving mac n’ cheese from the blue box but I think your version just raised the stakes! 🙂

  5. Sounds amazing! Queso de bola is quite popular in Puerto Rico as well. I have used it for mashed potatoes, but didn’t think of adding it to Mac & Cheese before.

  6. Your mac and cheese looks amazing! I loved the blue box in college (spirals only please!) but I don’t think I’ve ever made my own either! Thanks for the inspiration!

  7. This looks like a delightful alternative! I actually didn’t know people made mac & cheese except from a box until I was in my teens! Thanks for sharing.

  8. excellent version and I would definitely serve this to my kids rather than the traditional box that they love so much!

  9. I love your version of Mac ‘n Cheese! That sounds delicious and your photos are also really yummy.

  10. Sophisticated mac n’ cheese with meat? Yes, please! This sounds spectacular. Excellent touches to make this your own.

  11. This looks like a classic mac and cheese with a sophisticated twist. Either my reading skills are failing more or you left the butter and flour out of the ingredient list. If it’s there I’ll feel foolish, but I just can’t find it!

    • It’s not you, Greg. I drafted this post late last night and must not have saved the final draft. I noticed that the entire recipe was missing this morning (as well as other edits) so I had to correct hastily. I missed the flour and butter. Thanks so much for pointing it out. Fixed now. 🙂

  12. Oh, that looks decadent and delish! My husband goes crazy for baked pasta dishes, and I love the idea of using orecchiette…to think of all the sauce those little ears can scoop up.

  13. Gosh, such beautiful mac and cheese! My dd still prefers Kraft Deluxe, but I’ll take a big plate of yours!

  14. That is delicious…. I think the addition of the pancetta is just the best! Yes….we grew up on the blue box – never something as luxurious and comforting as this! What size is your baking dish?

  15. Hi Jean, this looks like a delicious comforting version of Mac & Cheese. I love it with a green salad, must balance the richness of the dish. Pretty photos too:-)

  16. I am a big fan of crumb topped mac and cheese (I love the different textures) and that topping looks perfectly crusty and crisp! Can’t wait to try it!

  17. I have no idea what the blue mac&cheese box looks like. I do know that after this recipe I declare you Italian! Really, baked orecchiette. Bechamel sauce. Pancetta. Man, you know how to make me drool!

  18. Yes, please! This is the ultimate comfort food!

  19. Jean – I was actually never a mac and cheese fan due to a dislike for the Kraft boxed version that I had a kid. Once I discovered that mac and cheese can be homemade in a gourmet way, my dislike turned into like! Love the orecchiette in mac and cheese. There is a place in Berkeley called T-Rex Barbeque and they make a wonderful mac and cheese with orecchiette. It is on 10th street and not too far away from the great 4th street shopping district. Wish I was having a bowl full of your mac n cheese tonight. Have a terrific week!!

    • It figures that someone else would have done this already. 🙂 I can see why, though. The oriecchiette works really well to hold the cheese sauce. I don’t think I’d use anything else now.

      Have a great week yourself, Lisa. 🙂

  20. I am definitely loving YOUR mac n cheese.

  21. Tastes Better With Friends says:

    Surprisingly, even Canadians grew up on it too;)
    But I don’t ever remember having this version, looks great!

  22. This is perfect. One of the dishes my son does not like me making is macaroni and cheese so very happy to have your recipe. Looking yum!! I also like that you used Orecchiette. Shulie

  23. Kraft Dinner with a can of tuna and a can of peas makes the best camping dinner, ever. EVER. But when I’m at home, I like a gloriously gourmet version of mac and cheese — just like the one you shared here. Great recipe…thanks! Theresa

  24. So delicious! I almost cried a little – I want some!!!! And I probably wouldn’t share!

  25. Oh yes… this looks so comforting (and totally NOT vegetarian)! I have to say, I really enjoy orecchiette. It’s just really fun pasta… especially in mac and cheese.

  26. Jean, I like you never ate mac and cheese out of the box growing up because my Japanese mother likely didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t until high school when I ate this at a friend’s home that I asked my mom to buy this for us. I’ve never made homemade mac and cheese either, but I’ve been looking at a lot of different recipes biding my time for the right dinner. LOL. I love the idea of using orecchiette – a pasta I haven’t cooked w/ in ages but I love. Thanks for this recipe – love the pancetta. PS – I am so impressed how you’ve been posting so frequently!!! I don’t have the drive! 🙂

  27. This sounds heavenly.. I would be totally impressed if someone shared this with me during a study date! I think I’ll have to make this for Mountain Man.. he’ll love it!

  28. Macaroni and cheese always wins my heart…in all of its splendid varieties. But as I grow older, I find myself drawn to more sophisticated recipes, and this, my dear, looks superb! Thank you for sharing your tasty and creamy casserole with me. I hope you had a great day…may tomorrow be even better!

  29. Love your interpretation with the orecchiette and pancetta, along with bechamel and panko for the crust – a winner! I didn’t grow up eating anything from a box – except Special K cereal, but my daughter loved the mac & cheese from Annie’s – its organic and doesn’t have near the fat, sodium and mystery ingredients as the infamous blue box. For future reference 😉

  30. it looks fantastic! Here there is no blue box :), but there are some persons around putting all the ingredients in a plate and microwave it !!! well, that’s something I could never eat.
    But your recipe looks heavenly !!

  31. Of all the custom mac’n’cheese recipes I have seen, which has been quite a few!, this one seems to be the best! I will have to make this soon, perfect for all this snow. Thanks for sharing!

  32. Truly comfort food, picture looks so tempting. This is a recipe I must try! Never had mac & cheese out of a box growing up and won’t start now either. This is a great combo of ingredients. Thanks for sharing!

  33. mmm the only thing better than mac n cheese is mac n cheese with pancetta! brava!

  34. Ohhh, this looks incredible! Talk about some cozy comfort food! Great blog; happy I found you!

  35. this sounds absolutely addictive. im half italian so anything with pancetta i love. and im a huge fan of mac and cheese. bravo, this looks AMAZING.

  36. This looks fantastic! While there’s something good about store bought foods like the blue box, there’s nothing like homemade. Love that you used pancetta and panko bread crumbs. This looks like the perfect comfort food meal.

  37. Holy yum!

  38. There are so many versions of mac-n-cheese. The shape of the noodle, the cheeses used, cream ratio~things you add to it, all change the finished dish and make it brand new.
    I love how you gathered things on hand (frozen cooked pasta? I’m impressed!) and pulled it all together to make a beautiful meal!

    • You know I’ve never frozen leftover pasta before but I couldn’t stand to waste all that cooked orecchiette. So glad I did–it worked well for this “mac” and cheese. Glad you like it. 🙂

  39. OK so I want this right now cause I’m hungry and the cheesy goodness just too tempting. I make a similar version using panko, but never orechiette! I’ve got some gruyere just waiting to be melted into something. This wins!

  40. That is one excellent grown up mac and cheese!

  41. Yummy, anything with pancetta will have an A++ for me.


  42. This looks like Back to School comfort food to me! And, I’m not talking about for the kids…for me! Good timing 🙂


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