A Squared: What's for Dinner Wednesday: Mac & Cheese with Bacon, Bell Peppers & Caramelized Onions

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What's for Dinner Wednesday: Mac & Cheese with Bacon, Bell Peppers & Caramelized Onions

Mac and cheese is one of my favorite comfort foods-- and these days, I am all about comfort food. I've also been busy stocking my freezer for post-baby dinners and this recipe really checks both of those boxes: it is the ultimate in make ahead freezer-friendly comfort food.

My goal with this recipe was not just to create something delicious, but to make sure that this mac and cheese could also pass as a full meal in the event that I need to heat it up for a quick dinner while trying to calm a screaming newborn. Who has time to steam broccoli on the side in a situation like that?

This mac and cheese begins with a rich base of creamy Gouda and sharp cheddar cheese amped up with a touch of mustard and hot sauce. You could really end the recipe here and just bake it if you're a mac and cheese purist, but I like to add a few mix-ins to round out the dish. For this version of mac and cheese, I added in crispy applewood smoked bacon, sauteed bell peppers, and sweet caramelized onions. I love adding a kick of saltiness from the bacon and the sweetness of the peppers and onions work really nicely against the savory bacon and in the richness of the mac and cheese. It's all topped off with a layer of melty cheddar and crispy panko breadcrumbs.

This recipe makes a large amount of mac and cheese, so it's perfect if you're feeding a crowd. It also freezes nicely so I divided it up into smaller loaf pans to make a few individual dinners for Alex and me after we come home with baby.


  • 1 lb. short cut pasta *I used Barilla Farfalle
  • 10 slices Applewood smoked bacon
  • 2 tsp. olive oil, divided
  • 1 Tbs. butter
  • 1 sweet Vidalia onion, thinly sliced
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 cup fat free low sodium chicken broth, as needed for deglazing
  • 3/4 lb. sweet bell peppers (red, yellow and/or orange), cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 4 cups 2% milk
  • 4 Tbs. all purpose flour
  • 1/4 tsp. grated nutmeg 
  • 1/2 tsp. ground pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. hot sauce 
  • 1 1/2 Tbs. yellow mustard
  • 1 3/4 cups grated Gouda
  • 2 cups grated sharp cheddar, divided
  • 2/3 cup panko

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a 9x13 baking dish (or a combination of smaller baking dishes, if you choose).

Cook pasta according to package directions in a large pot. Drain, but do not rinse and set aside.

In a large skillet, cook bacon in batches over medium heat until crisp. Transfer cooked slices to a paper towel-lined plate. Once the bacon is cooked, carefully drain the grease from the pan. When the bacon has cooled, chop into 1/2-inch dice.

Add 1 tsp. olive oil and the butter to the skillet over medium heat. Add onions and a pinch of salt, stirring occasionally. If onions begin sticking to the pan or browning too quickly, reduce heat to medium low and add a little chicken broth to the pan. Continue this process for about 25 minutes until onions are golden and very soft.

Add the diced bell peppers to the pan and saute for 6-8 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat.

In the same pot in which you cooked the pasta, whisk together milk and flour. Bring to a boil and then reduce to medium. Cook for about 10 minutes, whisking frequently until the mixture has reduced and thickened slightly. Whisk in nutmeg, pepper, hot sauce, and mustard until combined.

Remove from heat and stir in all of the Gouda and 1 1/2 cups of sharp cheddar. Stir until smooth and combined. Fold in cooked pasta until coated evenly with the cheese sauce. Add the bacon and the pepper and onion mixture and fold in until just combined. Pour into a prepared baking dish.

Sprinkle the reserved cheddar evenly over the top of the pasta mixture, followed by the panko. Drizzle with remaining tsp. of olive oil.

Bake for 35 minutes and until golden brown on top. Remove from oven and let stand 5 minutes before serving.

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