I love making homemade mac and cheese because the possibilities are endless. You can play with cheese combinations, pasta shapes, and additions like meat, vegetables, herbs, and spices. When it comes to this comfort dish, I rarely make it the same way twice, but it’s always delicious!
For this batch, I used two types of cheese: Sharp Wisconsin Cheddar and Havarti. I chose the cheddar for flavor and the havarti for its creamy texture. I also added bacon, leeks, and fresh thyme – an amazing flavor combination.
Although this casserole takes a bit more prep work than traditional macaroni and cheese, it’s not difficult to make.
First, prep and assemble your ingredients. Wash and chop the leeks, shred the cheeses, and measure out the other ingredients.
While you heat the pasta water, cook the bacon. I start my bacon in a cold skillet, then cook it over medium heat, turning and moving the pieces as necessary, until the bacon is evenly browned and crisp.
Drain the bacon on paper towels then chop into small pieces.
Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon drippings, then add the chopped leeks to the pan and cook over medium-low heat until softened and just starting to brown.
When leeks have softened, stir in the chopped fresh thyme and the bacon pieces. Remove pan from heat and set aside. Cook pasta until al dente then drain and set aside.
Melt butter over medium heat in a large heavy saucepan (I use the pasta pot).
When butter has melted, stir in the flour to make a paste.
Cook the flour mixture (also known as a roux), stirring constantly, for about two minutes. It should be slightly darkened and have a nutty aroma.
Whisk in the half and half until smooth then bring to a boil, whisking constantly.
Reduce heat and simmer, stirring, until thickened.
Add cheeses, reserving one cup of shredded cheddar for the topping, and stir until smooth.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Stir in pasta until well-coated with cheese sauce.
Add the bacon and leek mixture.
Stir until everything is well combined. Taste again and adjust seasonings if necessary.
Pour the pasta into a greased 9″x 13″ inch baking dish then sprinkle with reserved cheddar cheese.
Bake in a 375 degree oven for 25 minutes.
This recipe was created for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing board using Wisconsin Cheddar and Wisconsin Havarti that I was able to purchase here in California. I was not paid to write this post, but I was provided a stipend to cover ingredients as I was developing the recipe.
Macaroni and Cheese with Bacon, Leeks, and Thyme
1 pound medium pasta shells (or elbow macaroni)
1/2 pound thick-sliced bacon
2 leeks, cleaned and thinly sliced crosswise (white and light green parts only)
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup flour
3 cups half and half
8 ounces sharp Cheddar, shredded
6 ounces Havarti, shredded
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 9″x13″ baking dish and set aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, cook bacon until crisp then chop into small pieces. Drain all but 2 tablespoons of bacon drippings from pan then return to medium-low heat and add chopped leeks. Cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks are softened and just starting to brown, about ten minutes. Stir in chopped thyme and chopped bacon and remove pan from heat. Cook pasta in boiling salted water according to package directions until al dente, then drain and set aside.
In a large heavy saucepan, melt butter over medium heat and stir in flour. Cook, stirring, for about two minutes, until flour mixture has darkened slightly, then whisk in half and half. Bring sauce to a boil, whisking constantly, then turn heat down and let simmer, stirring, until thickened. Stir in shredded cheeses, reserving one cup of shredded cheddar for the top of the casserole. Stir in salt and pepper then remove sauce from heat. Stir in pasta and the bacon-leek mixture. Pour pasta into the greased baking dish and sprinkle with reserved cheddar cheese.
Bake at 375 for 25 minutes. Serve warm.
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