October 29, 2017

Cheesy Baked Pasta

I have officially declared it cheese season. It's the best thing available at the farmers' market since it's too cold to grow any produce, family visits mean obligatory cheese tastings, and really the only way to stay truly warm in this weather is to eat massive quantities of cheese to build up your very own personal insulation. It's the only way. It's science. Wisconsinites love to eat cheese curds, cheese cubes, cheese plates, pretty much everything. One of my personal favorites is smothered on pasta, especially when there's four whole kinds of cheese, perfectly al-dente pasta, a smidgen of bacon (ok, maybe more), and piles of crisp, cheesy breadcrumbs all baked in a big skillet.

You probably know by now that if there's bacon in a recipe it's the first thing I cook. Some would argue that this is for snacking purposes, but cooking the bacon first gives you the real prize: bacon fat to cook everything else in. If I had an Italian grandma she'd be rolling in her grave right now, but the one thing you can do to make a bechamel sauce better is starting it in bacon fat. Anyway, I cook some bacon or pancetta in a big pan until crispy, dice it up, and leave all that lovely fat in the pan.

From there, I add the garlic since you can't have a good pasta without any garlic. It only needs to cook for about a minute since burned garlic will ruin the entire dish. To be honest, if you burn the garlic you have to start over with more bacon (which means more bacon for snacking) so it's not the end of the world. I use this garlicky bacon fat as the base for my bechamel, which is just a white sauce made by thickening milk with a roux, a mixture of fat and flour. Here, the fat is the bacon and flour gets added to it and cooked until bubbly. You want to cook the flour a bit so the starches hydrate and are ready to take on the rest of the sauce. I find that it's better to warm the milk before whisking it in so it doesn't seize as much, but be careful not to scorch it. Just warm to the touch will suffice.

Once you have your thick, velvety bechamel, it's time to add the cheese. I like a blend of fontina for butteriness and creaminess, mozzarella for the gooey stretch factor, provolone for bulk and a hint of smoke, and parmesan for that sharp, cheesy flavor. Romano, asiago, havarti, or any of your other favorite cheeses would all be fantastic. As long as you have at least one melty cheese and a flavorful cheese your sauce will be delicious. The best part about experimenting with this recipe is that you can taste the sauce before you add the pasta, so it's easy to adjust before you commit to a whole skillet of it. The cheesy bechamel is mixed with whatever bacon you have left after noshing and plenty of pasta. I prefer a rigatoni or some other tubular shape to catch all the sauce, but it's easy to substitute whatever else you have on hand. I cook it for a few minutes less than the box recommends so that it still has some texture to it after baking.

Most pasta dishes would be ready to go in the oven at this point, but this one has one extra step. I toss some panko breadcrumbs in butter AND MORE CHEESE and slather them all over the top of the pasta. This gives you some crunch and that toasted cheese flavor that all meals should have. I made this for dinner for my roommates for our monthly family dinner, and they all agreed it was the perfect touch. My roommate just walked past my door and, upon hearing what I was writing about, made sure to tell me to tell you all that this dish "is good." If that doesn't convince you to make it I don't know what will, so buy out your grocery store's entire cheese section and help me make cheese season a thing.

3/4 lb Pasta
1/4 - 1/2 lb Bacon
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1/2 Cup Flour
3 Cups Milk, Warm
6 oz Mozzarella, Shredded
4 oz Fontina, Shredded
4 oz Provolone, Shredded
3/4 Cup Grated Parmesan
1 Cup Panko
4 T Butter, Melted

Heat oven to 375F and grease a 9x13" baking dish.

Cook the pasta in salted water until al dente according to package directions.

Heat a large pot over medium heat and cook the bacon until crispy. Remove and chop.

Cook the garlic in the bacon drippings for 1-2 minutes or until fragrant. Add the flour and cook for 1-2 minutes or until thickened. Slowly whisk in the milk. Stir in the fontina, mozzarella, provolone, and 1/2 cup parmesan. Add the bacon.

Toss the panko in the melted butter. Add the remaining 1/4 cup parmesan.

Stir the pasta into the sauce. Pour into the prepared dish, top with the crumbs, and bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden and bubbly.

Serves 6-8
Recipe Adapted from Giada di Laurentiis


  1. Yummy!My mouth is watering right now!I can't get enough of this,It is a dream come true for all the foodies out there.

  2. It sound so yum! Thank you for sharing the recipe!

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