Mac and Cheese (with Bacon and Mushrooms)

I’ll go straight to the point and admit that I’m infatuated with homemade Mac and Cheese.  That being said and on the record, I also admit that I seldom make this legendary American classic.  And it’s most likely because mac and cheese is not such a cultural statement in Romania as it is here.  Of course, I know what it is and I ate it frequently as a kid (or so my mom says), but it was never deeply ingrained into my upbringing.  When Romanians talk about mac and cheese, we usually see it as dessert since we sometimes throw in sugar; or as a snack on a cold afternoon, or a light lunch, at best, and always after a generous bowl of soup.  And the preparation is typically less sophisticated.       
Still, this sinful comfort food must grace my tongue from time to time.  And my take on Barefoot Contessa’s recipe was the first American version of mac and cheese that I had ever tried.  It’s probably not your basic mac and cheese and more of a fancy adaptation of the classic but it’s utterly divine.  Funny how boiling some pasta, drowning a hefty amount of cheese in a puddle of thick and tasty white sauce, and baking everything together can send you straight to heaven with a mouthful.  The crusty top doesn’t hurt at all either; and while in the oven, the tomatoes wrinkle nicely and release their charming sweet acidity to cut through the cheesy richness and brighten the flavors.  Simply sublime!  
Over time, I played around with the recipe and tossed in simple ingredients like bacon and mushrooms that made the familiar gooey and creamy delight so much more special.  The smokiness of the bacon and the meatiness of the mushrooms are simply unbeatable.  In essence, a festival of flavors will explode in your mouth.  And I know that the Super Bowl is all about the ultimate comfort food, but if you decide to ditch it for this mac and cheese you will not be disappointed.      
Mac and Cheese (with Bacon and Mushrooms)
Adapted from Mac and Cheese by Barefoot Contessa
Makes: 12 servings
·         Kosher salt
·         Olive oil
·         1 pound elbow macaroni
·         Optional: 4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into ½ -inch pieces
·         Optional: ½ pound Portabella mushrooms, sliced
·         4 cups whole milk
·         8 Tablespoons unsalted butter (plus 1 Tablespoon – optional), divided
·         ½ cup all-purpose flour
·         12 ounces Jarlsberg or Gruyère cheese, grated
·         8 ounces white Cheddar cheese, grated
·         ½ teaspoon black pepper
·         ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
·         2 large tomatoes
·         1 cup bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Drizzle oil into a large pot of boiling salted water.  Add the macaroni and cook according to the directions on the package, 6-8 minutes.  Drain well and put in a large bowl.
If you decide to toss in some bacon and mushrooms in your mac and cheese, this is what you have to do:  Heat 2 Tablespoons of olive oil and 1 Tablespoon of butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat.  Add the bacon and cook, stirring often, until fat is rendered and the bacon is crisp, about 6-8 minutes.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a paper towel and set aside.  Add the mushrooms to the skillet (there will be bacon drippings left in the skillet), season with a pinch of salt and pepper and sauté until cooked, 5-7 minutes.  With a slotted spoon, transfer the mushrooms to a paper towel and set aside.
In a small saucepan, heat the milk over medium heat but don’t boil it.  Melt 6 Tablespoons of butter in a large (4-quart) pot over medium-low heat and add the flour.  Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring with a whisk.  While whisking, add the hot milk and cook for 10-12 minutes until thickened and smooth.  Off the heat, add the Jarlsberg, Cheddar, 1 Tablespoon salt, pepper, and nutmeg.  Whisk everything together. 
Pour the sauce over the macaroni and stir well.  (If using bacon and mushrooms, this is when you add them to the party and stir well.)  Pour into a 3-quart baking dish. 
Slice the tomatoes and arrange on top.  Melt the remaining 2 Tablespoons of butter in a skillet, combine them with the bread crumbs and toast slightly.  Sprinkle on the top.  Bake for 35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the macaroni is browned on the top. 
Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)       

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