Fontina and Bacon Mac

This is definitely a year of “firsts” and there’s a new one to add to the list: I entered my first cooking competition.

Some A-100 friends hosted a Mac & Cheese-Off a few nights ago. It was very informal, and more of an excuse for everyone to make and eat lots of macaroni and cheese than an actual cooking competition.  But I am pretty competitive, so I was in it to win it.

I decided to use fontina cheese because it has a strong (but not overwhelming) flavor and is really creamy.  Add to that some mozzarella, and you have a cheese combination that melts nicely and tastes smooth but distinctly cheesy.  Then I added bacon because, well, most people that like mac & cheese also like bacon.

I sprinkled some Italian seasoned salt on top after it came out of the oven because I was worried it wasn’t salted enough.  And I’ve seen enough episodes of Top Chef to know that under-seasoning a dish can mean defeat.

We arrived at the party, and there were nine different mac & cheeses entered in the competition.  As soon as I saw that someone had brought fried chicken and mac & cheese waffles, I knew I was sunk.  It tasted really good and was very inventive, and the woman who cooked it literally spent all afternoon and several hours the day before cooking the dish.

The four judges tasted each dish, rated them from one to ten and then discussed their findings.  Eventually they announced the winners, starting with third place.  Much to my surprise, I won!  I’d convinced myself I wouldn’t win, so I was pretty happy.  And Nate was happy because he got to eat mac & cheese all night.

Just like in Top Chef, a classic perfectly-executed dish beats out the inventive pretty good dish every time!

Fontina and Bacon Mac

Time: 20 min preparation, 25 min baking (serves 8-12)

16 oz uncooked spiral pasta
3 c grated (packed) fontina cheese
1 c grated (packed) mozzarella cheese
1 c grated (packed) Parmesan cheese
2 c heavy cream (or half and half)
2 c milk
3 t flour
2 t salt
1 t freshly ground pepper
12 oz bacon, cooked crisp and diced
1 c Panko (you can also use crushed Saltines or crushed Rice Krispies)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Butter a 9×13 baking dish.

Cook the pasta in heavily salted water (more salt than you think you need) until al dente, about 5-7 minutes.  Drain the pasta, but don’t rinse it.

Whisk together the milk, cream and flour, and then stir in 2 c fontina, 1/2 c mozzarella and 1/2 c Parmesan.  Stir in the cooked pasta, salt, pepper, and bacon.

(Taste the mac & cheese at this point, even though it will be a little weird because the cheese isn’t melted. Add more salt and pepper if necessary.  I found this needs more salt than you’d expect.)

Spread the pasta/cheese/bacon mixture in the prepared baking dish, and sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese.  Sprinkle the Panko on the top.

Bake uncovered for 20-25 minutes, until bubbling and brown on top.

Other things you could add: 3 c sliced kale, 2 c chopped cauliflower or broccoli, etc. You could leave out the bacon and use ham, chicken, or turkey.

Do ahead: After sprinkling the Panko, cover the pan and refrigerate for up to 3 days.  Bake for 25-30 minutes.

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