Most of the time, I shun macs that are loaded with non-cheese add-ins. But I adore bacon, and potato chips are my longtime self-medicating drug of choice so this recipe spoke to my lizard-brain in a primal way. Must. Have. Bacon!! I love eggs with bacon, and donuts with bacon, and God help me, I love chocolate with bacon, so when I saw Pat and Gina Neely prepare this on their Food Network program, the marriage of bacon with macaroni and cheese nearly sent me into spasms of ecstasy.
Then I fretted that perhaps I was expecting too much from a mere casserole.
But fear not, my fellow pig worshippers! Among the macs I’ve prepared for this blog, I rank this one #2 (behind Martha, natch). It may not be a coincidence that both recipes in my Top Two rely on a rich white sauce to bathe the pasta in creamy flavor.
Most white sauces I’ve prepared involve a roux made from equal parts of flour and butter. The Neely’s white sauce uses 50% more butter than flour, and next time I might eliminate a tablespoon or two because it seemed like, during baking, the extra butter broke from the sauce to form a slick on the bottom of the dish. It was almost as if the food couldn’t contain that much buttery goodness. As Scotty informed James T. Kirk, “I canna’ change the laws of physics, Cap’n!”
For this batch of macaroni and cheese, I used Cabot Extra Sharp Cheddar purchased at Trader Joe’s, along with a small amount of leftover TJ’s X-Tra X-Tra Sharp New York Cheddar from a previous recipe. I really like the snap and crumble of the Cabot, and the flavor is outstanding.
The now-familiar triumvirate of seasonings (dry mustard, nutmeg and cayenne) are employed sparingly here, which is surprising since the Neelys are known for their punched up versions of Southern barbecue favorites. Next time I’ll probably increase one of the three spices and put the bottle of hot sauce on the dining room table for those who want more.
The other thing I’d do differently is choose another brand of potato chips for the topping. I had half a bag of kettle-style chips handy, but those turned out to be too sturdy for this application. I think a lighter, more crushable chip like Lay’s would create a heavenly, flaky top layer, sort of the panko corollary to the humble breadcrumb. The same could be said for the bacon: a crispy, crumbly brand would be more desirable than a meaty, toothsome one for this recipe.
The crushed potato chips and crumbled bacon are only scattered on top of this casserole, they’re not mixed in, so purists can scrape off and bless you with their topping – score! For me, both elements added something really special to what was already a very good macaroni and cheese bubbling below. Taken together with the Cheddar cheese, the effect was reminiscent of potato skins; in fact, this might be enhanced by a handful of green onions or chives added to the topping, too.
Pat and Gina Neely’s Macaroni and Cheese
• 6 tablespoons butter
• 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
• 4 cups milk, warmed
• 1 teaspoon dry mustard
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
• Dash salt and freshly ground black pepper
• Dash hot sauce
• Dash Worcestershire sauce
• 3 cups shredded Cheddar
• 1 pound cavatappi pasta
• 1 cup crushed potato chips
• 5 slices cooked bacon, crumbled
• 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan, for topping
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain.
3. Meanwhile, melt 6 tablespoons butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add flour and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Whisk in the warmed milk and bring to a boil, continue to whisk constantly. The mixture will thicken.
4. Continue to stir while adding dry mustard, nutmeg, cayenne, salt, pepper, hot sauce and Worcestershire. Stir in the 3 cups of Cheddar until it melts.
5. Pour the cheese sauce over the noodles and pour into a 3 quart casserole dish.
6. Sprinkle the potato chips, bacon and Parmesan on top and bake for 35 minutes.