Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mac & Cheese with Pancetta


Are there any foods that seemed common to others but not to you growing up? For me, it would be macaroni and cheese. Most of my grade school friends would eat mac & cheese while I was eating an ethnic dish with steamed rice. In fact, I remember when I asked my mom if we could have Kraft Mac & Cheese for the first time.

It was such a big deal for my siblings and me to eat mac and cheese like all our classmates. My family's perspective on food was always buying mainly fresh produce, fresh meats and random Asian ingredients such as soy sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce, shrimp paste, etc. The concept of box mixes was so foreign in our family kitchen that I knew making macaroni and cheese wouldn't be as easy as it seemed on those tv commercials.

So there I was in the kitchen with this blue box in hand, my younger siblings watching intently. My mom let me cook the mac & cheese while she prepared our usual ethnic dinner at the same time. I look at the box and proceed to boil the pasta. Fine. The pasta is drained and placed back in the pot along with milk and butter. Fine. Then comes the neon orange packet of powdered cheese. Wait - what?! How is this orange substance going to resemble the creamy, cheesy sauce we've been drooling over in the commercials? I kept going with the instructions and then it was time for the taste test. My siblings at this point were so eager with high expectations just like me but sadly, it was a disappointment. It just tasted and looked so.... fake and unlike the commercials. My mom already predicted we wouldn't like it and as they say, mother knows best. Ever since, I stayed away from the boxed mac and cheese.

Now as an adult who avoids packaged and pre-prepared foods as much as possible, I have a fondness of homemade mac and cheese, sans neon orange cheese powder. There are countless recipes out there for mac and cheese, many of which are prepared starting with a roux, milk and grated cheeses that are mixed in to create a cheese sauce. This recipe comes from Ina Garten - another favorite of readers who commented last week. To add a little more flavor, I added some crispy diced pancetta. I didn't stray from Ina's recipe very much since it's a pretty straight forward recipe. If you wanted to change it up, you could always experiment with different cheeses and perhaps add in some other vegetables such as broccoli, sauteed mushrooms, onions, garlic... the possibilities are endless!

Mac & Cheese with Pancetta
recipe adapted from Ina Garten

Kosher salt
Vegetable oil
1 pound elbow macaroni
1 cup diced pancetta
1 quart whole milk
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
12 ounces Gruyere, grated (4 cups)
8 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar, grated (2 cups)
salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
4-5 small fresh tomatoes, sliced
1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs

chopped fresh parsley for garnish

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Drizzle oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add the macaroni and cook according to the directions on the package, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain well.

In a saute pan, cook the pancetta until crispy. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a 1 quart/4 cup measuring cup in the microwave (to save yourself a pot) but don't boil it. Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large (4-quart) pot and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring with a whisk. While whisking, add the hot milk and cook for a minute or two more, until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, add the Gruyere, Cheddar, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooked macaroni, pancetta and stir well. Pour into a 9x13 inch baking dish.

Slice the tomatoes and arrange on top of the macaroni. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, combine them with the panko bread crumbs, and sprinkle on the top. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the macaroni is browned on the top. Garnish with chopped parsley for color.