Bacon and Beer Macaroni & Cheese

On blustery winter days like today, there is nothing like a hot dinner filled with comfort foods.  For me, the ultimate comfort food is homemade macaroni and cheese.  There isn’t any of the yellow boxed stuff served at our house; rather noodles are mixed with a rich sauce comprised of whichever cheeses I have on hand.  Bake it in the oven for a half hour or so and you end up with a rich and creamy cheesy goodness that hits the spot.

This recipe was inspired by one I found on the From Away food blog. Originally made with brown ale and cheddar cheese, I adapted the recipe based on the ingredients I had on hand.  Korce e Ze, a local dark beer was substituted for the recommended brown ale and not being able to find real cheddar cheese in Albania I used a mixture of provolone, Gouda, and Swiss.  The original recipe called for 4 full cups of half and half cream. Again, not being able to find half and half I used whole milk and still received the creamy results I desired.  In the future, I’d like to try this with cheddar and pepper jack combination.  I think this would create a complex and rich dish.  Even without these ingredients the consensus was that this version of mac and cheese was pretty darn tasty.

BACON AND BEER MACARONI & CHEESE
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided plus more for the dish
4 slices white bread, crusts removed, torn into 1/4 to 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 pound bacon
4 cups whole milk
12 ounces dark beer
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 small can chopped jalapenos
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika
4 cups cheese of your choice, shredded and divided
1 cup penne, ziti or similar sized pasta
1)  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Butter a 3 quart casserole dish; set aside.
2)  Place the bread in a medium bowl.  In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons
     butter.  Pour the butter into the bowl with the bread and toss.  Set the breadcrumbs aside.
3)  Dice the raw bacon and add to a large fry pan.  Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the
     bacon is brown and crisp.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer cooked bacon to paper towels to drain.
     Drain all but 1-2 tablespoons of bacon grease from the pan, leaving all of the brown crispy bits.
4)  Heat the milk and beer in a separate saucepan over medium heat.
5)  Add the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter to the rendered bacon fat and allow to melt.  When the
      butter bubbles, whisk in the flour, scraping the bottom of the pan to release the brown crispy bits
      and stir until combined with no lumps remaining, approximately 1 minute.
6)  While whisking, slowly pour in the hot milk and beer mixture.  Continue cooking, whisking
      constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick.  Remove the pan from the heat.  Stir in the
      salt, nutmeg, black pepper, jalapenos, 3 1/2 cups cheese, and cooked bacon.  Set cheese sauce
      aside.
7)  Fill a large saucepan with water; bring to a boil.  Add the pasta and cook 2 to 3 minutes less than the
     manufacturer’s directions, until the outside of the pasta is cooked and the inside is underdone.
8)  Transfer the past to a colander, rinse under cold running water and drain well.
9)  Stir the pasta into the reserved cheese sauce.  Pour the mixture into the prepared dish.  Sprinkle with
     remaining 1/2 cup of cheese, bread crumbs, and paprika.
10)  Bake until browned on top, about 30 minutes.  Transfer to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes.  Serve
       hot.
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