Baked Mac And Cheese Gets A Grown-Up Makeover

March 4, 2016
Just a few simple ingredients upgrade this comfort-food favorite from kids' menu to adult fare, without a lot of extra effort.
Jill Bernardini
A Classic Baked Pasta Elevated with Crispy Pancetta and Leeks I WGBH I Craving Boston

Leeks, pancetta, white cheddar, and a little Comté — this is a "mac and cheese" for grown-up tastebuds. Bacon is certainly a popular addition to mac and cheese these days, but the pancetta lends a peppery undertone, and yields a bit more rendered fat for the base. I season this dish with even more pepper throughout the cooking process, which enhances the flavor of the cheddar (or maybe I'm just really addicted to black pepper).

This recipe uses a technique that might seem a little odd, but works wonders — warm milk. If you've never kept the milk warm when preparing the cheese sauce for a baked pasta dish, now you'll never turn back. This little trick gives the sauce a smoother consistency, and it thickens a bit faster than using cold milk right from the fridge.

Rotelle, or those funny wagon wheel-shaped pastas, are perfect for catching all the accompaniments in the sauce and coating every nook — or spoke, I suppose! If you can't find these, a small shell pasta or tubular shape can work just as well.

1 pound rotelle pasta
8 ounces pancetta, diced
3 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 leeks, cleaned, halved lengthwise, and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
2 dashes Tabasco hot sauce
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 pound sharp white cheddar cheese, grated, 1/2 cup set aside
6 ounces Comté cheese, grated
  salt and pepper, to taste
  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and set the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 3-quart baking dish, and set aside until ready to bake the pasta.
  2. Add the rotelle to the boiling water, stirring frequently, and cook 2 minutes less than the package directions, about 5 minutes. Strain the pasta, and set aside.
  3. Wipe out the same pot, and over medium heat, sauté the pancetta until crisp and golden brown, about 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked pancetta to a small plate, leaving the fat in the pot and keeping the pot on the heat; set pancetta aside.
  4. Meanwhile, set another small saucepan on low heat, and add the milk and cream. Stir occasionally, but do not let come to a boil.
  5. Add the leeks to the pancetta fat, stirring to coat, and sauté for 6 minutes, or until the leeks are softened. Stir in the garlic, mustard, and Tabasco, and cook for an additional 2 minutes.
  6. Sitr the flour into the leek mixture, and cook for 4 minutes.
  7. Pour about half of the warm milk mixture into the leek mixture, stirring constantly, until slightly thickened. Add the remaining milk, and cook over medium-low heat until the mixture coats the back of a spoon, about 6 minutes.
  8. Once the milk mixture is near a simmer and thickened, remove from the heat, and gradually add both cheeses, reserving the 1/2 cup cheddar for topping. Stir, off heat, until the sauce is smooth and cheeses are fully incorporated.
  9. Add the cooked pancetta and the pasta to the sauce, stirring to combine, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to the buttered baking dish, and sprinkle with the remaining cheddar.
  10. Place in the oven, bake for 25 minutes covered, then an additional 10 minutes uncovered, until cheddar on top is melted and golden brown. Remove from the oven, let sit for 10 minutes, then serve.

For a true cheese aficionado, visit Bob and his knowledgeable crew at Bacco's Wine and Cheese in Back Bay. Not only do they carry an amazing array of unique foods, their cheese case carries over 100 cheeses. He provided excellent advice on the best melting cheeses (not to mention a few samples, too).

Bacco's Wine and Cheese - 31 St. James Avenue, Boston, 617.574.1751,