09 January 2013

Baked BLT Mac & Cheese

The hubs has a guilty pleasure for Velveeta shells and cheese.  Every time I'm out with the girls for dinner, he makes himself a box and goes to town.  And I secretly love him more for it.  I guess the way to my heart is a love of shell-shaped noodles and cheese.  So I decided to make an extra-special, gourmet version of his shells when we made our annual Cougar Gold baked mac & cheese this year.  Hence, the BLT Mac & Cheese was born.  Get ready for a hearty dinner, folks.

*Disclaimer:  the & sign makes it taste better.

I know I've mentioned it before in my blog, but this is Cougar Gold cheese.  This stuff is amazingly delicious, good enough to impress even die-hard Wisconsin cheese-heads.  We get a can (yes, can!) sent to us from good ol' Pullman, Washington every year from my mother.  Basically, it's the best white cheddar ever.  But if you can't find this, any other sharp cheddar will do.  

The last few years, we've been pretty dedicated to baked seafood mac & cheese with our Christmas tin. The year 2011 brought us crayfish and 2010 was lobster, mostly due to our nostalgia for Christmas in the Northwest from our now-native Ohio.  We were fortunate enough to go home for the holidays (to heaps of snow and skiing, thank you very much!) where our seafood appetite was considerably whetted.  So we decided to go with another type of mac & cheese.  And by jove, we just happened to have bacon on hand.  

But why stop at bacon?  Sure, that would have been divine as crisp, peppered pork bits always are.  However, I saw this as a perfect opportunity to indulge in my own favorite guilty pleasure...BLT.  I love those sandwiches.  Toasted bread, bacon, tomato and lettuce.....mmmmmmm.  So here I took our solo-favorites and attempted to marry them into a dynamic duo that we both would love.  Shells + cheese + bacon + tomato + kale = success.

To technically, I guess it's not BLT but it's BKT.  But to me that looks like an abbreviated version of "bucket" and if I called it a BKT, the point would be lost.  So please excuse my swapping of leafy greens.  I used kale for two reasons:  1) we always have it on hand because 2) I love the stuff.  But if you prefer collard greens or spinach, toss them in instead.  The same goes for the bacon in this recipe...the hubs and I love peppered, but go for hickory smoked if you happen to have it.  Just get a green, bacon and tomato in there and you'll be good to go.  

This is a fabulous dish.  You have a serving of vegetables, whole wheat pasta, and plenty of protein from the milk cheese and bacon.  You also have a small serving of fat, but we'll just ignore that fact (chances are if you're making this recipe, you're not worried about being low-cal).  And surprisingly, it's not as filling you might expect.  Though rich in flavor, the kale and tomato do a wonderful job of breaking up the heavy pasta and rich flavors.  It also sits a little nicer than the Velveeta.  My favorite part was the top.  A sprinkling of panko give a nice crisp texture for contrast, but the kale also toasted around its little exposed edges, adding wonderful flavor.  

(I'm getting sad we're out of this cheese.)

Now I must point out, this is a very saucy dish (and I am not just talking about its attitude).  Upon its initial serving, I considered the fact that I'd added too much sauce and not enough noodles.  But once we re-heated the leftovers, I forgot that idea completely.  This is honestly the best reheated mac & cheese you'll ever have.  The hubs almost never likes reheated pasta, but this was so good we ate leftovers two nights in a row.  The extra sauce helps keep everything tender and moist, with no dry inedible bits.  If you're planning on eating the whole dish at once, you might want to reduce the milk by a half cup.  However, if you're looking for leftovers, leave it as is.  

BLT Mac & Cheese
  • 7 oz bacon (we used peppered)
  • 2 tomatoes, seeded and diced
  • 2 c kale, roughly chopped
  • 1 1/2 tbs garlic
  • 1/2 tsp pepper, divided
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 6 oz whole wheat pasta, short variety (penne, shells, spirals or macaroni)
  • 4 tbs unsalted butter
  • 4 tbs whole wheat flour
  • 2 c non-fat milk
  • 1 1/2 c (10 oz) sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 c panko (breadcrumbs would work too)
Fill a large pot with water and salt generously.  Place over high heat and cook pasta according to directions.

Place a pan over medium heat and preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Cut the bacon into matchsticks.  When the pan is hot, add the bacon.  Cook until crisp, then remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain excess grease.

After you have removed the bacon, drain about half of the fat from the pan and place back over heat.  Add the kale, tomatoes, garlic, pepper and salt.  Cook for 2-4 minutes, until the kale is slightly wilted and the garlic is fragrant.  Remove to a small bowl, and add the drained bacon bits.

Place the butter in a large dutch oven and melt over medium heat.  Add the flour and whisk together until smooth. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes.  Add the milk 1/2 cup at a time, whisking well between each addition.  Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, stirring constantly.  When the mixture starts to thicken, reduce heat to medium and cook, still stirring constantly, for an additional 5 minutes before removing from the heat.

Add the cheese to the milk mixture and stir in with a wooden spoon until melted.  Add the cooked pasta and tomato mixture and mix well.  Sprinkle the panko over the top.  Place in the heated over and bake for 18-20 minutes until the top is golden brown and the sauce is bubbling around the edges.  Remove and let cool for 5 minutes before serving.  Even better the next day!

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