With Pancetta, Leeks, White Cheddar and Gruyère cheeses.
Who doesn't love Mac 'n' Cheese!? If this is you, then please move on. But if you are like me and love the creamy, cheesy, sometimes crunchy dish then keep reading.
Also, just a head's up; this is a blog entry. I do not have a recipe in the traditional sense below; just some pictures and how I did what I did. I'm sorry.
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This macaroni and cheese recipe was inspired by my love of white cheddar. It combines Cavatappi noodles with White Cheddar, Parmesan and Gruyère cheeses with Pancetta and Leeks. It starts with sauteing seasoned leeks and garlic until softened, then crisping diced pancetta and using the delicious fat left from that in addition to butter & flour to make a roux. Add some milk, seasonings and the cheeses to make a delicious cheese sauce and then mix in the leeks and pancetta before adding to the cooked noodles. Finish off this delicious dish in the oven with a seasoned parm and breadcrumb topping.
The result is creamy and gooey and cheesy and unmatched in my book. If you have been following along you will know that I don't always measure things, so please take the following as a guideline. If the sauce isn't quite thin enough to mix smoothly in with the noodles, add some more milk and a little butter. Taste the sauce before and after the cheese is added, does it need more salt or pepper or seasonings for you and your family? Add them. Do you have an issue with nutmeg in your mac 'n' cheese? Okay, don't use it, but don't tell Bones. (Reference to 'Bones' episode, "The Glowing Bones in the Old Stone House").
Recipes are guidelines. Don't be afraid to change things up a little, and don't be upset if the outcome doesn't come out perfectly. Just make note of that in your recipe book, on a post it note attached to the print out of the recipe, anywhere. Just make a note of it and do it a little different each time, until you get the dish that you and your family love.
The first step is to put a pot of salted, like really salted water on the stove and cook the noodles. You can do the next of the steps while it boils, but the noodles will be done before the rest is, and that's okay. Just drain the noodles, saving some pasta water, and drizzle with just a little oil and mix with your hands. The oil will help you when you go to combine all the components.
The second step is to chop the leeks, now this part of the recipe isn't measured because leeks vary in sizes and I measure onions, garlic and butter with my heart, not a scale. No if you are new to leeks you might be thinking, "Wait, she said onions? What?" Well, a little lesson about leeks is that they are alliums, which means they are related to onions and garlic. If you don't have leeks, sub them for onions-I'd use green onions, because I like the color the green provides to the dish.
Like the cutting board above? Get it here! And that gorgeous knife? Right here!
You'll notice in the pictures above, that leek is huge! I sliced it in half lengthwise and only used one half. After dicing the leek up, a little finer than in the second picture, I then rinsed them in a colander. I highly recommend this due to the soil and sand that they are grown in; it gets down in the leek. Some people wash them before hand, and that's fine, but I've found rinsing them after you've cut them the way you want that you get the best results.
Then toss them in with the fat of your choice, butter or oil, and let them soften. Leeks tend to take a little longer because they are firmer than a regular onion. Then I chopped up a few garlic cloves, salt and pepper and let the flavors develop. Once those are at the texture you prefer, remove from the pan and add the diced pancetta, you can use bacon-I'm obviously not a stickler.
Once the pancetta is crisp, remove from pan and add to the leeks just waiting to add them all to the noodles and cheese. Add some butter to your pan, once melted, add the same ratio of flour to the butter and combine to form a roux. The longer you let that roux cook, the darker the sauce. I had some buttermilk left over from a morning batch of biscuits so I used the remainder of it and then finished the sauce off with plain milk. Also, I have made this recipe with both coconut and cashew milks, it all worked fine.
Then I added a little over 8 oz of cheese, half white cheddar and half gruyère and then made the difference up with some parm. However, most of the parm was reserved for the topping. While melting the cheese, I also added about a few teaspoons of smoked paprika and grated around two teaspoons of fresh nutmeg into the sauce. In the pictures you will see that I had some Nutritional yeast setting out there. I sometimes add that to help add a little nuttiness to the dish, but it's also a great sub for cheese, if you are vegan. Combine it with some ground cashews for an excellent sub for parm.
Here's where some of those instincts I spoke about earlier come into play; has the sauce gotten a bit to thick? Do you think that it might not stretch to cover all the noodles you chose to cook? (We all make more noodles than we need, just use what will fit.) Okay, so add some more milk, add a bit of butter, even use some of the pasta water you saved. You did save a little of that, just in case, right?
Once the sauce is the consistency you think will mix well, grab a bowl or you baking dish and start mixing. I usually put a small spoon of the sauce on the bottom, after buttering it, then put a layer of noodles and leeks/pancetta mix, then pour some sauce and repeat, then stir it all together.
In a small bowl, combine a nice handful of breadcrumbs, parm and I usually add a bit of that nutmeg in it as well. Then sprinkle the mixture over the top, and bake for about 30-40 minutes at 350 degrees. At this point you are just looking to brown the top and let all the flavors meld together.
I'm sorry that I didn't write out an exact recipe or even attempt to have given you all better measurements. But I felt this needed to be posted this way. This is how I cook, 90% of the time. I use my instincts, trial by fire. Failure is the first step to success; don't be afraid to try new things, to veer off the beaten path of a recipe and do your own thing. If it fails, it fails, but you learned something along the way.
As time goes on I may sit down and actually write out this recipe, but for now this is a simple dish to get you all thinking about using your gut when cooking. I hope you all try to create this dish and I hope you love the ups and downs. Please tell me all about it! Show me pictures, tag me in your creations (#westandtaylor).