Suddenly, everybody’s old favorite, macaroni and cheese, is in the news. In England, neuroscientists at the University of Sussex measured subjects’ brainwaves while they ate, and it made one of their top foods in a “comfort index.” Chefs in New York, Santa Fe and San Francisco have put it on their menus,
to acclaim (and great reviews). It’s a dish people often feel compelled to tinker with, and most of the ideas are just lily-gilding (I’m guilty too, back when I thought like a chef rather than a cook). The only variation that makes sense, I think, is the addition of bacon, which adds a savory flavor to an already savory dish, cranking up the volume (my version also cuts down on the white sauce, which otherwise inhibits the flavor to a wimpy level). The bacon has to be smoked and not thin-sliced, for the same reason, and the cheese should be mature, extra-sharp. Otherwise, it’s just school lunch all over again. . .
1 pound macaroni
12 ounces Cheddar cheese, grated
6 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon dried thyme
6 slices smoked bacon
½ cup breadcrumbs
Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F; butter a baking dish (about 9x12 inches, 2 inches deep).
In a saucepan, cook the macaroni 10 minutes, then drain and rinse briefly with cold water, which prevents it sticking together. Set aside. Fry or grill the bacon until brown and done, but not crisp enough to crack—if it’s still flexible, it will have more flavor. Drain on a paper towel, then chop into half-inch pieces.
Heat the milk thoroughly, either in a small saucepan or in the microwave. In a saucepan, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter over medium-low heat. When the color is tan, dump in the flour and stir well. Continue stirring for 3-4 minutes, then add half the milk, stirring well. Continue adding the rest of the milk a little at a time, stirring. The sauce will froth, then begin to thicken as you stir. Cook for about 10 minutes.
Remove from the heat, stir in about two-thirds of the cheese, and the thyme (it adds a very subtle, fresh aroma). In a large bowl, combine the macaroni, bacon, and cheese sauce. Stir well. Place in the buttered baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and toss with the breadcrumbs, then sprinkle over the top of the cheese (a fork does the job well enough).
Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes, till the top is a golden crust. Remove from the oven and let it rest for about 10 minutes, and serve.