When asked by my editor at Sauce magazine to develop a soul-satisfying winter dish, I could think of nothing better than mac ‘n cheese. (No surprise, really. I’m a comfort food gal through and through, if you didn’t know already!) My special rendition of the dish, below, is one very adult version, flavored with (yes, you guessed it) pancetta and sage. It also get its distinctively smoky flavor from smoked gouda cheese and its equally distinctive rosy hue from tomato paste and sun-dried tomatoes.
Yield: About 10 (8-ounce) servings
Prep Talk: This dish can be made 2 to 3 days ahead. Store tightly covered in the fridge; then re-heat, covered loosely with foil, in a 350ºF to 375ºF oven.
- 10 ounces elbow macaroni
- 1/4 pounds pancetta (Italian cured bacon), chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 3/4 cup diced yellow onion
- 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 4 cups whole milk, warmed
- 1 pound grated smoked gouda or sharp cheddar cheese, divided (I like to use a blend of the two cheeses.)
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped, drained marinated (or oil-packed) sun-dried tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh sage, or to taste
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- About 3 tablespoons plain bread crumbs
1 | Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375ºF. Set aside a 3-quart round or 7 x 11 x 2-inch rectangular baking dish.
2 | Fill a large (6- to 7-quart) stock pot with 3 quarts lightly salted water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add the macaroni and cook, uncovered, until al dente, that is, tender, but not soft or squishy. Drain the macaroni and rinse under a gentle stream of water. Set aside to fully drain.
3 | Meanwhile, place the pancetta in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. When the pancetta has rendered a few tablespoons of fat, increase the heat to medium-high. Cook until crisp, stirring regularly to prevent sticking. Remove the pancetta and discard all but 1 tablespoon of the fat.
4 | Add 1 tablespoon unsalted butter to the pan and place the pan over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the chopped onions. Cook, stirring regularly, until the onions are soft, about 10 minutes. Combine with the reserved pancetta. Wipe the pan clean.
5 | Place the remaining 5 tablespoons butter in the pan and melt over medium heat. Remove the pan from the heat and add the flour, whisking well. Return to the heat and cook, stirring regularly, until the roux is the color of straw, about 2 to 3 minutes. Gradually add the warm milk, whisking frequently to prevent scorching and any lumps from forming.
6 | After the mixture has boiled and thickened slightly, reduce the heat to low. Add all but 3/4 cup of the grated cheese. Cook until the cheese has melted, stirring as needed. Add the tomato paste, sun-dried tomatoes, minced sage, and reserved pancetta and onions. Stir well. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
7 | Turn the drained macaroni into a large bowl and gently stir in the tomato-cheese sauce, making sure that all of the pasta is evenly coated. Adjust the seasoning.
8 | Spoon the mixture into the baking dish. Sprinkle the top with the bread crumbs and reserved 3/4 cup grated cheese. Bake until the top is lightly browned and the cheese sauce is bubbling, about 30 to 35 minutes.