Those who remember the bone marrow mac ’n’ cheese and the cheese-stuffed mac ’n’ cheese pie know I’m not shy about taking a perfectly reliable institution and making it…well…wrong. Or, at least, as much more wrong as a big pan of cheese, bread and pasta can possibly get. This version, I reckon to say, is probably even worse for you than the stuff that comes in the blue box, assuming you find artery-clogging fat and nitrates slightly below artificial “cheez” and preservatives on the acceptability scale. But it’s worth it, especially since “upscale comfort food” of this nature is in vogue now and can run you $7 or more for a wee little serving at a pretentious gastropub. For $7, you’ll have enough of this to eat for days. (Worried you’ll get tired of it? Don’t. I made this last week and would happily still be eating it today if we had it around.)
As below it makes about 6 servings, and I think it’s just as good cold as it is hot.
• 1 lb. elbow macaroni (or other pasta of your choice): $1
• 5 1/2 cups sharp cheddar (about 1 lb.), grated (NEVER buy pre-grated cheddar cheese; it’s treated with some kind of powdery cellulose material to keep the shreds from sticking together, which is gross): $4
• 4 cups whole milk: 48 cents
• 6 slices bacon: $1.40
• 3 T flour: 3 cents
• 4 small or 2 large cloves garlic, smashed: 5 cent
• A few thyme sprigs (garden): $0
• 2 1/2 cups good-quality bread crumbs: $0
• A T or so of olive oil: 6 cents
• Salt & pepper: 2 cents
TOTAL: $7.04/6 = $1.17/serving
Preheat oven to 350 F. Toss the bread crumbs in the olive oil with a little salt and pepper and bake until well-browned and crunchy, stirring a couple of times to prevent burning. (10 minutes? I admit I wasn’t paying attention to how long this took. Just start it while you’re prepping the other ingredients.)
When the bread crumbs are done, remove them, set aside, and increase oven heat to 400 F. Grease a 13×9 Pyrex dish.
Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until just a minute or two shy of al dente. Drain, rinse well under cold water, and set aside.
Put the smashed garlic and thyme in a medium saucepan.
Add the milk, plus salt and pepper to taste, and heat to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and keep covered while you prep everything else.
Cook the bacon over medium-low heat in another medium saucepan until crisp and all the fat has rendered. Remove, chop, and set aside. Increase heat to medium. If your bacon didn’t release 3 tablespoons’ worth of fat, add some reserved bacon fat (keep a can in your fridge!) or, less desirably, butter. Add the flour to the hot bacon fat and stir to make a roux. Cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat, until light golden brown. Put a strainer over the saucepan and strain the hot milk into the roux. Continue to cook, stirring often, until thickened slightly. It should coat the back of a wooden spoon to where you can draw a line through it. Stir in the grated cheese and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Add the cheese sauce to the drained pasta and stir to incorporate. Fold in the chopped bacon. Spread into the prepared Pyrex dish and bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes.
Sprinkle the bread crumbs over the top and bake for another 5-10 minutes, until hot and bubbly.