Almost everyone agrees that Macaroni & Cheese is the ultimate comfort food. There is something so inviting about eating a big bowl of pasta curls nestled in a bed of melted cheese, topped with a lightly breaded crust. It is dish that requires no tough cutting of meat, hard chewing or addition of complicated sauces. Every bite is a simple, smooth mouthful of warmth that I, for one, always turn to when in need of a soothing meal.
Over the years I've made my mother's Mac-n-Cheese recipe countless times, but a couple of years ago I discovered a new variation in Bon Appetit. The recipe replaced macaroni with orecchiette, added two additional cheeses, pancetta (as you all know, a favorite of mine), onion, garlic and a hint of spice. The recipe was like my mother's, only with the flavor volume turned way up.
Last week my daughter was felled with her first (of many, I'm sure) fall cold. It wasn't fun for any of us. Luckily it was very mild, but her sniffles required that I chase her around with tissues while she tried, somewhat successfully, to dodge my attempts at wiping her nose. (I won't even get started on the circus that ensued when I had to keep her still for nose drops.) Thankfully the ordeal only lasted about 24 hours, but by the end of it I was spent. Between her sick-day antics and my nose-wiping workout, I wanted a dinner that was hearty, filling and comforting, all at once.
One of my favorite parts about this recipe is that it is a snap to make during my daughter's afternoon naptime. It only takes a few minutes to form a creamy, rich bechamel sauce full of crispy pancetta. Then I simply mixed it with the freshly cooked pasta, add the panko topping and place it in the oven to bake. In fact, I've made this so many times that when I completed it last week I still had enough time to put my feet up before my daughter woke - always a welcome bonus.
When we finally reached dinner I re-heated the dish and served myself a big helping. The panko had crisped just the right amount in the oven so that when cracked with the serving spoon it made a tantalizing crunch. From underneath a little bit of steam released revealing a silky cheese and pasta casserole, studded with just the right amount of crispy pancetta. Needless to say we all greatly enjoyed dinner that evening. I know my family was thrilled to be eating one of their favorite dinners, but I think I was the happiest. My plate was filled with comfort food at its finest. It was my reward for making it through the day, and it was very tasty.
Orecchiette with Pancetta & Three Cheeses
adapted from Bon Appetit, September 2008
1 lb. orecchiette pasta
6 T. unsalted butter, cut into 1 T. pieces
4 oz. pancetta, thinly sliced and coarsely chopped
1 c. onion, finely chopped
1/2 t. red pepper, or more to taste if you prefer spicy food
1/4 garlic clove, minced
1/4 c. all-purpose flour
3 c. whole milk, plus more for additions later on
2 1/2 c. cheddar cheese, grated
1 c. Parmesan cheese, grated
8oz. mascarpone cheese
1 3/4 c. panko breadcrumbs
Salt & Pepper to taste
1. Preheat oven to 350. Cook pasta in boiling salted water according to package instructions. Drain pasta and set aside.
2. Melt 1 T. of butter in a large, deep skillet. Add pancetta and let it crisp for 6-8 minutes, until it has the texture of almost cooked bacon. Then, add the onion and stir gently until it is soft and slightly golden. Add the garlic and red pepper, stir for 2 minutes, making sure it is evenly distributed.
3. To the pancetta mixture add 2 T. butter and allow it to melt. Add flour and stir for a minute, allowing it to thicken. Then, working quickly, whisk in milk. Be sure to keep whisking to make the roux and get out any lumps in the sauce. Stir for about five minutes, or until the milk starts to thicken and can coat the back of a spoon.
4. Remove the sauce from the heat and add the cheddar, parmesan and mascarpone. Stir well to make sure all of the cheeses are incorporated. If sauce it too thick, add more milk by the 1/4 cupfuls to loosen it up. Taste the sauce and add salt and pepper as needed.
5. Gently, pour the pasta into the prepared sauce and stir to make sure it is all mixed together. Then, pour it into a 9x13 baking dish.
7. To prepare the breadcrumbs, melt 3 T. butter in a shallow pan and add panko. Swirl the panko and butter gently in the skillet with a wooden spoon, toasting panko until just golden. Remove from heat. Spread toasted panko evenly over top of the casserole.
8. Bake for 30 minutes, or until heated through. Can be made ahead of time and re-heated.
Naptime Recipe Props: As noted above, this dish is the ultimate comfort food. I love that it is a more mature version, full of different flavors and spices. If you feel like adding different seasonings or spices go ahead and play around a little.
Naptime Stopwatch: Preparing the sauce and pasta takes about 30 minutes, then another 30 minutes of cooking time. The best part? This takes an hour to make and can feed the family for at least two nights!
Naptime Reviews: My family wholeheartedly agrees that this is the best macaroni and cheese next to my mothers. They love the different flavors that seem to make it richer and more adult. However, my daughter loves this, as well. I am sure other kids would, too.