We might believe mac and cheese is quintessentially American. However, Wikipedia (don’t judge, I like my food history light – like my cheese sauce) tells us that casseroles of pasta with cheese date to the 14th century in Italy. Pasta with bechamel sauce and cheddar cheese can be found in 18th-century English cookbooks. President Thomas Jefferson reportedly ate it in Paris and served a version at a state dinner.
This country has embraced this perfect combination ever since. Today, macaroni and cheese features in some form on restaurant menus, in cookbooks, on food television and most of our dinner tables.
At home, start with good pasta. For the best texture, I look for imported pastas made from durum wheat. Warm, melty cheese sauce clings best to tubular shapes – with or without ridges. Small, bite-size penne or shells, spring-like fusilli, rotini, farfalle, even wagon wheels stay al dente when sauced.
My son, who swaps grocery shopping and dishwashing for food, says this might be the easiest homemade mac and cheese we’ve ever made. Rich, creamy, toothsome and endlessly customizable, we’ve yet to exhaust ideas for customizing it:
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▪ Asparagus mac and cheese: Use 1/4 cup olive oil in place of the bacon and add 1 or 2 cups diced fresh skinny asparagus along with the garlic.
▪ Mushroom mac and cheese: Add 1 1/2 cups thinly sliced mushrooms when cooking the onion.
▪ Spicy sausage mac and cheese: Use 6 ounces crumbled Italian sausage instead of bacon and cook thoroughly. Then stir in1 or 2 roasted and diced banana peppers.
▪ Smoked salmon mac and cheese: Skip the bacon and use 1/4 cup olive oil. Stir 1 to 2 cups flaked or diced smoked salmon into the finished dish before serving. Garnish with chopped chives.
▪ Crab or lobster mac and cheese: Skip the bacon and use 1/4 cup olive oil. Stir 1 to 2 cups cooked crab meat or lobster meat into the finished dish before serving. Garnish with chopped chives.
Creamy Bacon Mac & Cheese
3 or 4 thick slices smoky bacon or 4 ounces pancetta
1 small onion or 2 large shallots, finely diced
1 or 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups coarsely shredded Parmesan, plus more for serving
1 cup mascarpone, at room temperature
1/2 cup ricotta
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon each: freshly ground black pepper, crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1 pound tubular pasta shapes, such as small rotini, fusilli, penne or cavatappi
Heat a large pot of well-salted water to a boil over high heat.
Meanwhile, cut bacon into 1/2-inch pieces. Put bacon and onion into a 10-inch nonstick skillet. Cook over medium heat until bacon is golden and a little crispy, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in garlic and remove from heat.
Put Parmesan, mascarpone, ricotta, salt, pepper to taste and crushed red pepper in a large bowl. Use a rubber scraper or wooden spoon to thoroughly blend.
Add pasta to the boiling water. Stir well and boil uncovered until al dente (nearly tender), usually 10 to 12 minutes. Scoop out and reserve about 1 cup of the pasta cooking water. Drain pasta in a colander and add it to the cheese mixture.
Top with the bacon mixture. Stir to coat all the pasta with the cheese mixture. Add a little of the reserved pasta water if needed.
Per serving (for 8 servings): 565 calories, 34 g fat, 18 g saturated fat, 91 mg cholesterol, 45 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 20 g protein, 485 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
Yield: 6 to 8 servings.