My Ultimate Bacon-Jalapeño Mac and Cheese- with its five cheese sauce and smoky bacon- is guaranteed to provide comfort.
This post is sponsored by my friends at Danish Creamery, however, all thoughts and opinions are my own.
This move has been one of the hardest in my life; I’m not being dramatic, either. In my 25 years of life…stop laughing…okay, fine! In ALL of my years of life I’ve never cried so much as I have since moving here. The nightmare movers, the chaotic townhome debacle, and, now, living in an über-small place on top of one another have all been so difficult. I wanted to eat comfort food, so naturally I thought of the ultimate comfort food, which is mac and cheese.
We stopped in at a highly-recommended restaurant and, while reading the menu, my eyes zeroed in on their jalapeño mac and cheese. It was the “best mac and cheese ever” according to them. What landed on the table before me was the ultimate disappointment. I hate admitting it, but, I cried yet again. Yes, macaroni and cheese brought me to tears. But, it was much more than a pitiful dish of pasta that set me off.
I cried wondering was this move a mistake? Seriously, why couldn’t the simplest things go right for us? I regretted everything about our situation.
But, the look in my twins’ eyes snapped me out of my pity party. They were scared for me. Not only for me, but for themselves. They wondered if their parents had lost control. It was their look that gave me the motivation I needed.
Find comfort in what you know
As a creature of habit, familiarity is a comfort to me. So, when my eyes alighted on a familiar brown box with blue letters that read Danish Creamery, my creative wheels started spinning. Go ahead and laugh, but seeing that box brought me comfort. My life was filled with all sorts of unknowns, but I knew that this freshly churned butter was going to be the same high-quality ingredient it has always been since 1895. No, it wasn’t a bigger, more comfortable home. It wouldn’t find me a new dentist, or favorite restaurant, but it would make a pretty mean mac and cheese.
I’m a chef, for crying out loud! Why was I crying about the letdown of my jalapeño mac and cheese? I knew I could- and would- make a better version of it. Not only was I going to make a jalapeño mac and cheese, I was going make it an ultimate bacon-jalapeño mac and cheese, instead.
I wasn’t going to stop with one type of cheese, either. Five- yes, I said it- FIVE types of cheese were going to be melted into my bèchamel sauce. My old friend, Danish Creamery’s velvety-rich butter would be the catalyst for thickening the sauce by means of a roux. Jalapeños, sauteed with bacon, were going to add a smoky spice to that baked casserole. And, of course, large elbow macaroni will form the backbone of this meal-in-one.
I was going to top it all off with a crunchy topping of panko breadcrumbs, fresh cilantro leaves, and crushed red pepper flakes.
My mood was lifting already.
Prep your peppers (say that five times fast)
Before you do any prep work- dicing and slicing, I mean- get your pasta water on to boil. Just fill a pot with a gallon of water and let it heat while you prep your aromatics and the bacon.
The bacon is easy to prep- just cut it into 1/2 inch slices. For a full recipe I use a pound of bacon. *If you have a smaller family to feed than my four, you can easily halve this recipe. This mac and cheese is freezable as well, which is another reason why I call it the “ultimate”. Freezing instructions are included below if you want to make the full recipe.*
Before moving onto your jalapeños, dice the onions into 1/8 inch squares, mince your garlic cloves, then chop your cilantro. Save cutting the peppers for last so that you can wash your hands afterwards.
When you’re ready to prep the peppers, slice off the stem end of two large jalapeño peppers, then slice them in half lengthwise. Carefully, cut the white membrane away from the green flesh. Remove and discard both the membranes and the seeds.
Cut the peppers into 1/4 inch strips before dicing them into 1/4 inch squares. Now you can begin preparing the mac and cheese.
Crisp up the bacon
Right around the time you’ve finished prepping your veggies, the water for the macaroni should be boiling. Dump the entire amount of pasta into the water and give it a stir. Boil the macaroni for 8 minutes. This is the perfect cooking time for large elbow macaroni- the best size to use for mac and cheese. It will leave the noodles al dente, which is optimum when you’re going to continue baking the mac in a casserole like we are.
While the macaroni is boiling, add your bacon to a cold sauté pan and bring it up to medium-high heat. Allow the bacon to cook for about 8 minutes, allowing that fat to be rendered slowly from the pieces of bacon.
When the timer for the pasta goes off, drain the pasta and- with the macaroni still in the colander- run very cold water over the noodles to stop the cooking process. This step will also keep the noodles from sticking together too much. Leave the macaroni to drain in the sink while you finish cooking the bacon.
After most of the bacon has browned, add the diced jalapeños to the pan to sauté them. Cook the bacon and jalapeños together for another 3-4 minutes, or until the bacon is crisp.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon and jalapeños from the pan. Transfer the mixture to a paper towel-lined dish to remove the excess fat and set the bowl aside.
Toast the panko breadcrumb topping
Remove all but 1/4 cup of the bacon fat from the pan. However, reserve the fat you’ve removed from the pan in case you need to add more to the topping while you toast it.
Add panko breadcrumbs and crushed red pepper flakes to the rendered fat in the pan and toast them-stirring frequently- for 2-3 minutes. The breadcrumbs should glisten slightly and shouldn’t look dry. If some of the crumbs do appear to be dry, pour in the reserved bacon fat- a tablespoon at a time- until the bulk of the breadcrumbs are glistening.
After a few minutes, add the chopped cilantro to the mixture. You want to wait until the breadcrumbs are almost done toasting before adding the cilantro, as this preserves the herb’s color and flavor. If you’re not a fan of cilantro, you can use parsley instead, or omit it altogether.
Continue toasting the breadcrumbs until they are golden brown and smell slightly nutty, about 1-2 minutes more. Remove the pan from the heat and let the breadcrumbs cool while you prepare the mornay sauce.
The higher the butterfat, the smoother the sauce
Danish Creamery butter will always be my recommendation because, unlike most butters sold in the States, it has a high butterfat content. At 85% butterfat, Danish Creamery imparts less water into your recipes than other butters on the market- even European butters. Our cheese (or mornay) sauce begins with a roux made with equal parts Danish Creamery unsalted butter and all-purpose flour.
Begin by melting the butter over medium heat in the same pot you used to boil the macaroni, no need to make extra dishes, right? While the butter is melting, use your butter wrapper to lightly grease your 9″x13″x3″ casserole dish.
Once your butter has melted, add the diced onion and minced garlic to the pot. Sauté the two until they are translucent- this usually takes about 3-4 minutes. While most roux are just butter and flour, I like to sauté aromatics into mine to create a more flavorful sauce.
Add all of the all-purpose flour to the melted butter and cook, stirring frequently, for at least a minute. This cooking time is vital because it’s the only way to remove that raw flour taste from the roux. Cook the roux for another minute.
Transform the bèchamel into a mornay sauce
To create a bèchamel- or milk- sauce, you simply add whole milk to your blonde roux. What I prefer to do is add the milk a half-cup at a time- whisking constantly- to prevent lumps in my sauce. That will also help to avoid lumps. Keep the sauce boiling once the milk has been added by reducing the heat to medium-low.
After all of the milk has been whisked in, season the bèchamel with freshly ground black pepper, kosher salt, ground paprika, ground mustard, and nutmeg.
Nutmeg is a well-kept secret when it comes to bèchamel sauces. Adding it highlights the creaminess of the milk and cheeses, but most people will never know it’s there.
Make it “Ultimate” by adding cheese and more cheese
Remember, I’m emotionally fragile right now. Due to my emotional fragility (and because of my disappointment with the faux ultimate mac and cheese), I’m making this mac and cheese an indulgent one by adding not one, but five types of cheeses. Each cheese plays its part in my truly ultimate mac and cheese. When it’s possible choose an aged cheese that provides more complex flavor profiles. If you’re feeling adventurous- look for goat’s milk versions of the cheeses listed. For example, I used a goat’s milk gouda in this batch.
Gruyere and gouda both are notoriously gooey cheeses. That iconic cheese pull that everyone fawns over when a spoon of mac and cheese is lifted from the casserole dish is all thanks, in part, to these two. I used a smoked gouda to add to the smokiness I’m getting from the bacon. If you can’t source gouda or gruyere, mozzarella is a gooey enough substitute, as is oaxaca.
Extra sharp cheddar gives this mac and cheese tang and bite. Gorgonzola (a blue cheese) does the same, but it hits the back of the tongue as it does so. Regular cheddar and blue cheeses are good substitutes if you can’t find these.
To iron out all of these bold flavors, I’m adding softened cream cheese. It’s creaminess not only tames all of these cheeses, it helps create a smoother cheese sauce.
Whisk the cheeses into the bèchamel and allow the heat from the milk sauce to gently melt them. Whisking frequently ensures none of the cheese sticks to the bottom of the pot and burns, while at the same time, encouraging a smoother sauce.
Finish the mac and cheese
Add the boiled macaroni, bacon and jalapeño mixture, and 2 lightly beaten eggs to the mornay sauce and fold everything together with a wooden spoon. The eggs acts as a binder to bring the whole crew together.
Once the macaroni is completely smothered in your cheese sauce, pour it into the greased casserole dish. Tightly cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake the mac and cheese for 35 minutes in an oven which had been preheated to 350°F.
After 35 minutes, carefully remove the casserole dish from the oven and uncover it. Spread the panko breadcrumb topping over the surface of the macaroni and cheese in an even layer.
Return the mac and cheese to the oven and bake, uncovered now, for an additional 10 minutes, or until the breadcrumb topping is light brown in appearance.
Cool, then enjoy
While it may be tempting to dive headfirst into your dish of Ultimate Bacon-Jalapeño Mac and Cheese, I suggest allowing it to cool for at least 15 minutes before doing so. Scalding one’s mouth is just as depressing as getting a terrible dish of mac and cheese or a moving fiasco.
Stare at it and inhale its aroma to pass the time.
Then, dig in with abandon.
Food shouldn’t be a crutch, but when you need a familiar go-to in order to make things bearable, it sure does come in handy. Find ingredients, like my go-to butter, that remind you of your happy times and incorporate them into your recipes. This ultimate mac and cheese did that for me and, while things aren’t a thousand percent better yet, it helped me find comfort- in a what feels like- a sea of uncertainty.
Pin this recipe for later and share with me down below- how do you find comfort when things become too intense?
**This post may contain affiliate links. To find out what that means to you, please read my disclosure page**
Ultimate Bacon-Jalapeño Mac and Cheese
- 9"x13"x3" casserole dish
- 16 ounces large elbow macaroni
- 1 pound bacon, cut into 1/2" slices
- 2 large jalapeños, deseeded and diced
- 2 cups panko breadcrumbs
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, optional
- 1/4 cup cilantro or parsley, chopped
5 Cheese Mornay Sauce
- 1 stick Danish Creamery unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup diced white onion
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 cups whole milk
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon ground mustard
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- pinch ground nutmeg
- 8 ounces gruyere cheese, shredded (about 2 cups shredded)
- 8 ounces softened cream cheese
- 4 ounces gouda cheese, shredded (about 1 cup)
- 4 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (about 1 cup)
- 2 ounces gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- Preheat your oven to 350°F. Set your oven rack to the middle area of the oven. Have a sheet pan on hand in the event you need to catch any spills from your casserole dish.
- Fill a 6 qt stock pot with a gallon of water and bring the water to a boil over high heat. When the pasta water comes to a boil, add the macaroni and cook for 8 minutes, or until al dente. Once the pasta is cooked, drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. Set the pasta to the side while you prepare the rest of the casserole.
- While the pasta is working, slowly brown the bacon in a large pan over medium heat. Allow the bacon to cook for about 8 minutes, stirring frequently, to allow the fat to render slowly from the bacon.
- After most of the bacon has browned, add the diced jalapeños to the pan. Cook the bacon and jalapeños together for another 3-4 minutes, or until the bacon is crisp.Use a slotted spoon to transfer the bacon and jalapeños to a paper towel-lined dish to drain. Set the bacon aside.
Make the Panko-Cilantro Topping
- Remove all but 1/4 cup of the bacon fat from the pan, reserving the remaining fat in the event you need it as you prepare the topping.Add the panko and red pepper flakes to the fat in the pan and toast the mixture-stirring frequently- for 2-3 minutes. The breadcrumbs should glisten slightly and shouldn't look dry. If some of the crumbs do appear to be dry, pour in the reserved bacon fat- a tablespoon at a time- until the bulk of the breadcrumbs are glistening.
- After a few minutes, add the chopped cilantro (or parsley) to the mixture. Continue toasting the breadcrumbs until they are golden brown and smell slightly nutty, about 1-2 minutes more. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the breadcrumbs to cool while you prepare the mornay sauce.
Prepare the Mornay Sauce
- In the same pot used to boil the macaroni, gently melt the butter over medium heat.Before discarding the butter wrapper, use it to lightly grease a 9"x13"x3" casserole dish.
- Once the butter has melted, add the diced onion and minced garlic to the pot and sauté then until they are translucent, about 3-4 minutes.
- Add the all-purpose flour to the melted butter and cook, stirring frequently, for 1 minute. Add the milk to the roux a half-cup at a time- whisking constantly- to prevent lumps. The milk will thicken quickly, be sure to continue pouring the milk into the roux in a steady stream- whisking constantly. This is now a bèchamel sauce. Reduce the heat to medium-low once the milk has been added to keep the sauce from boiling.
- Once the milk has been incorporated, season the bèchamel with the spices.Whisk the cheeses into the bèchamel and allow the heat from the milk sauce to gently melt them. Whisk frequently to prevent the cheese from sticking to the bottom of the pot and scorching.
Assemble and Bake the Macaroni and Cheese
- Fold the boiled macaroni, the bacon and jalapeño mixture, and the eggs into the mornay sauce. Pour the mixture into the greased casserole dish and cover tightly in aluminum foil. Bake the mac and cheese for 35 minutes.
- After 35 minutes, carefully remove the casserole dish and uncover it. Spread the panko breadcrumb topping over the surface of the macaroni and cheese in an even layer.Return the mac and cheese to the oven and bake, uncovered, for an additional 10 minutes, or until the breadcrumb topping is light brown in appearance.
- Allow the macaroni and cheese it to cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.