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My computer is back from the Geek Squad!  Hurrah!  Sorry for the week-long interruption in posts, but the frequent appearance of the Blue Screen of Death on my laptop was majorly disruptive to my blogging ability.  It’s still not 100% recovered, but I’m prepping a few saved up posts this weekend, so there will be posts this coming week even if it’s back in the clutches of the geek squad.  Starting with this one!

Have you ever tried the macaroni and cheese at Panera?  I have.  And I blame my little sister 100 percent for my addiction to the stuff.  It just so happens that back around the holidays, she and my mom happened to find the recipe.  Panera made it publicly available!  Kudos to you Panera.  Anyway, they made a batch for Thanksgiving, and while they were a little disappointed that it didn’t come out quick as saucy as the version you get in the restaurant, they said that it was still tasty!  I had to try it.

Last week seemed like the perfect time to give it a shot.  I was in the mood for some comfort food, and the idea of a mac n cheese dinner that didn’t come out of a blue box or have to be baked in the oven was really appealing.  So I went back to the Panera blog, pulled up the recipe, and decided to give it a shot.

Now the Panera mac n cheese is thick, cheesy and saucy, with a nice smooth flavor.  So I have to admit that I was a little bit surprised to see hot sauce listed in the ingredients.  But excited too, because it made the twist that I wanted to take much more logical!

As far as ingredients go, they’re all pretty common mac n cheese components.  Shell style pasta, cheese, milk or cream, flour and butter (for the roux, the thickening base), hot sauce, salt, and Dijon mustard.  I decided to take it up a notch, replacing some of the cheddar cheese with pepper jack, doubling the hot sauce, and adding one of my favorite things, bacon!  I know that there’s been a number of bacon recipes on my blog, and as much as I’d like to apologize to those of you who don’t eat bacon… I just can’t.  Because, as I said, it’s one of my favorite things.  And it made this go from ‘just another mac n cheese recipe’ to ‘OMG that was good, we’ll be making it again and again.’  But if you don’t eat bacon you can leave it out and just use butter.  But I feel bad for you.

To start, put a pot of water on to boil, add some salt.  When it’s at a rolling boil cook the pasta according to directions, then drain and set aside until you’re ready.  The recipe called for small shells, but I already had large ones.  It still turned out wonderfully.

Meanwhile, get out a big pot.  Cut your bacon into little slivers (technically called lardons, but I prefer to call them ‘crispy slivers of goodness’), and add them to the pot.  Cook over medium heat until they are crisp, then remove them to a plate covered with a paper towel.  The paper towel will absorb some of the grease.  DO NOT discard the grease in the pan.  You will use it in place of some of the butter in the original recipe, and it will add a ton of flavor.

I used the time while the bacon was cooking to prep the cheeses and measure out the milk.  Shred the pepper jack and cheddar (total of 8 ounces- I used six of sharp white cheddar and two of pepper jack, but will up that to three of pepper jack next time).  Cut or rip 7 slices of white american cheese into pieces and set all the cheese aside.  Measure out the liquids, I used 1 cup of light cream and 1 1/2 cups of skim milk… I don’t buy 2% like the recipe called for, but still wanted the end result to be just as creamy.PJB MacNCheese, prep cheese/milkNow, estimate how much grease is already in the pan.  I used thick cut bacon, and it looked like three pieces of bacon had released about 2 1/2 tablespoons of grease.  Add enough butter to bring the total amount up to four tablespoons.  I added a little bit less than 1 1/2 tablespoons.  Set the heat on the burner to low and let the butter melt.

Now add 1/2 cup of flour, and whisk for at least one minute.  Letting it cook while you whisk will help to get rid of the flour flavor.  All right, now you have the base for a roux!  Bring the temperature back up to medium and add the milk/cream slowly, maybe 1/3 or 1/2 of a cup at a time, whisking the mix together and then adding more as it starts to get thick.  When all of the milk is added, continue to whisk and cook the mixture until it is thick and bubbling.

Now remove it from the heat, and mix in the cheeses, hot sauce, mustard, pepper and salt.  Stir together until the cheese melts.

Add the pasta back in, and cook on the stove top over medium heat until the mixture is smooth and cheesy and pasta is hot again.  The sauce will ooze into every pore of the pasta.  Wow.

Note- I had to add more milk during the final cooking process to get it to where I wanted it, smooth and saucy, because it was a little drier than I expected.  Keep that in mind, and keep an extra half cup of milk nearby (that’s about what I added).  Just slowly stir in extra milk (warm it if you’d like and it will mix better), letting it continue to cook and get to where you want it.  The sauce was a little bit thicker than the restaurant version, but delicious all the same!

Now dish up some of that pasta, top it with a little bit of bacon, and go to town.  Serve immediately, because as it gets cold the sauce will thicken and get goopy.  This mac and cheese is REALLY rich and filling, so it can stand on its own as a main course (will serve about 4), or be a great side dish.  We enjoyed it with some fresh bread, as an ode to Panera Bread (although that was a lot of carbs for one meal), and a wonderful red Malbec wine.  Some green vegetables and fruit would go a long way with this recipe, making the meal seem a little bit lighter!  Enjoy!

P.S. This reheats well in the microwave, I took the leftovers to lunch at work and enjoyed them again.  If the sauce seems too thick after heating it in the microwave, just stir in a little bit of milk (warm it first, or microwave with the pasta if possible)… I didn’t find that necessary though!

Stove Top Pepper Jack and Bacon Mac ‘n Cheese
Adapted from Panera, The Ultimate Macaroni and Cheese

1 16 oz box of shell pasta
3 slices bacon, cut into slices (lardons)
butter to supplement bacon grease, up to 4 tablespoons
1/2 cup flour
1 cup light cream
1 1/2 cups milk (not whole milk)
7 slices white American cheese, torn into pieces
6 ounces sharp White Cheddar cheese, shredded
2 ounces Pepper Jack cheese, shredded
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper (or ground black pepper)
1/2 tablespoon hot sauce

optional, 1/2 cup additional milk to thin sauce

1.  Boil pasta in salted water according to package instructions.  Drain and set aside.

2.  In large pot cook the bacon until they are crispy.  Remove bacon to plate covered in paper towel, leaving the grease in the pot.

3.  Estimate how much grease is in the pan, add butter to bring total up to 4 tablespoons.  Over low heat, melt butter.  Add flour, whisking constantly until mixed in.

4.  Add milk gradually, in at least 3 batches.  Whisk constantly until the flour is all mixed, then add next batch of milk.  Increase heat to medium and cook until the mixture is hot and bubbling.

5.  Remove from heat, and stir in cheeses, Dijon mustard, salt, pepper and hot sauce, stirring until cheese is melted and completely incorporated.  Add pasta, return pot to heat, and stir.  Cook briefly, until pasta is hot and sauce is smooth.

6.  Top plates with bacon pieces and serve immediately.  Enjoy!

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