Mac & cheese casserole was a staple on the table at Easter. It always tasted so good with the ham that was the centerpiece of the meal and I thought it was something everyone had at holiday dinner. We used to get the entire family together at the house that belonged to Gram, my Dad’s mom– our family, Dad’s two brothers and two sisters and their families– my primary memories are of laughter, Yahtzee, Celtics basketball and that giant, impressive ham. I remember begging Mom for an extra dinner roll, because if you’re eating mac & cheese, Aunt Judy’s legendary potato salad, Gram’s pineapple pie (my favorite) and Easter candy all day, what’s one more roll? One year my youngest brother broke his leg and sat outside by the still-covered pool for… awhile, because he wasn’t crying and the adults were preoccupied with the bounty on the dinner table… I think of those gatherings every year on Easter Sunday, but it’s been a long time since I thought of that mac & cheese. Though I actually made this recipe almost a month ago, it seems fitting to write about it this week.
I’ve talked before about mac & cheese– my husband loves it, and so do I, really, but I don’t make it often because it feels like so much for two people. I’ve tried versions with less cheese, shored up by canned tomatoes and spicy jalapenos, but it’s hard to really think of that as mac & cheese; it’s more of a saucy pasta dish. My friends recently welcomed their first daughter and I took a few meals over to help out; on the request of the new dad, I included a fairly traditional mac & cheese made with cheddar and romano cheeses. I could tell that my husband was a little bummed to see it go out the door, so I decided to make one for him later that week. Broccoli was intended to be the side dish, but I love a good one-pot meal, so in it went. Believe it or not, the bacon was an afterthought– I needed to use up two slices, so I did. (It did nicely in place of a slice of Easter ham, I suppose.)
When you make this dish, I highly recommend adding the broccoli, but the bacon is optional, a special touch but not the highlight of this dish. The star here is the cheese in all its creamy, melted glory. The romano is a very deliberate addition, though it seems like almost an afterthought; it lends a nutty, sharp, salty quality that beautiful complements the cheddar. (The saltiness explains why the amount of romano used seems small.) If you need a substitute, parmesan will work, but see if you can find a small piece of romano– it will last forever in the fridge if you can’t use it all at once. I often find small pieces of romano in the cheese bites basket in the deli section of my grocery store.
You can serve this mac & cheese as an entree or a side dish, Easter Sunday or another day; I hope you enjoy it as much as we do. It’s nice to have a special occasion dish that brings back so many good memories of family gathered in celebration. Whether your family observes Passover, Easter or something else altogether, I hope your traditions will be cherished as much as mine.
Mac & Cheese with Broccoli and Bacon
- 1/2 lb. pasta, cooked according to package directions to “al dente”, drained
- 2 (or more) slices good-quality, thick-cut bacon (optional)
- 3 – 4 c. fresh broccoli, cut into bite-size florets and pieces
- 1/4 c. water
- 2 T. butter
- 2 T. flour
- liberal amount of black pepper, preferably freshly ground
- 1/2 tsp. Colman’s mustard powder (optional)
- 1 1/2 c. whole milk
- 1 1/2 c. medium orange cheddar, shredded and separated
- 1/2 c. romano cheese, shredded
- salt to taste
The beauty of this recipe to me is that I make the whole thing in one pot, but you feel free to use more than one, if you like. You’ll also want to have ready a lightly greased 2 qt. casserole pan, with the oven preheated to 350 degrees.*
Heat a large stainless steel saucepan or enameled Dutch oven (I use the same pot the pasta was cooked in) over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook, flipping after about 3-4 mins., until golden brown on both sides and crispy, but not burnt. Remove the bacon to a plate or cutting board and drain any excess drippings until about 2 T. remains in the saucepan. (If you’re not using bacon, add 1 T. butter or olive oil to the pan in place of the drippings.) Add the broccoli pieces to the warm pan (still over medium heat) and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 mins. You should start to see a little bit of color on the vegetables, but they will remain firm. By this point, the bottom of the pan will be quite brown from cooking the bacon, which is good, because brown is flavor. Add the water to the pan and use a wooden spoon to scrape as much of the flavor off the bottom, then cover and steam the broccoli for another 3 mins., longer if you prefer your vegetables softer. Add the cooked broccoli to the drained pasta; chop the reserved bacon, if using, and add that to the pasta, as well.
In the same pot, even if the bottom is still a little brown, melt the butter over medium-low heat. When it’s melted, stir in the flour until you have a thick sauce, or roux. Cook this very carefully for a minute or so over medium heat; you want it to brown slightly and cook out the raw flour taste that can ruin a good cheese sauce. Add the pepper and mustard, if using, and stir to combine. Whisk in the milk, 1/4 c. at a time, until you have the a nice white sauce (probably with flecks of brown, which is okay); if you add a little milk at a time and incorporate it thoroughly before adding more, you won’t have to worry about lumps. Continue whisking, and the white sauce should begin to thicken immediately; as soon as it does, add in 1 c. of the cheddar cheese and all of the romano cheese and stir until the cheese is melted. Taste the cheese sauce and add salt, maybe more pepper, to taste. Combine the pasta, broccoli, bacon and cheese sauce and mix well; pour into your prepared casserole dish and sprinkle the remaining 1/2 c. cheddar over the top. Bake for 20-30 mins., until heated through; the cheese on top should be melted and golden brown. Serve immediately.
*You don’t have to bake the mac & cheese, since all elements are thoroughly cooked when combined. If you want a stovetop-only version, just add all the cheddar cheese to the sauce; no need to reserve any for the top.