Baked macaroni and cheese is my all-time favorite comfort food. I mean, all nutritional values being equal, I would eat it every day. Baked mac and cheese isn’t that hard to make, either, but there’s one thing that consistently short-circuits my after-work impulse to throw one together: I never have milk in the house to make the béchamel sauce.
Being the resourceful gal that I am, I decided to take matters into my own hands and transform my favorite boxed mac and cheese (Trader Joe’s shells and cheese) into an easy baked mac and cheese that did an end run around béchamel. I made the boxed version as usual, poured it into a casserole dish, sprinkled a little Parmesan cheese on it, topped it with a mixture of sautéed onions and crumbled-up bread heels, and baked it for twenty minutes. It was great; the sweetness of the onion and butteriness of the crispy bread were the perfect complement to the creamy mac and cheese.
After a few go-rounds with my baked mac and cheat, I hit upon the perfect flavor combo for me: bacon, Brussels sprouts, red onion, and chèvre, with a cornbread topping. It is an addictive sweet-savory combination with a slight hint of the South—and though it has a few steps to it, the preparation doesn’t feel like much work at all. I’ll often make it when I have leftover cornbread and bacon to eliminate the two most time-consuming steps.
You can easily omit the bacon (or use veggie bacon or sausage) to make this vegetarian, and you can adapt the flavor combo of sprouts, veggie bacon, and cornbread to use with a boxed vegan mac and cheese. I also love to swap the Brussels sprouts out for a layer of creamy, buttery baked sweet potato, which mixes beautifully with the cornbread.
Now that I’ve started dressing up my mac and cheese, I can’t stop thinking of additional flavor combinations and easy substitutions. Here are just a few you could try:
- Add sautéed onions, garlic, broccoli, and spinach to the mac and cheese to get your daily servings of veg.
- Add chopped pastrami to the mac and cheese, lay swiss cheese on top, and use rye bread for your topping for a Reuben mac and cheese—heck, I think I’d even drizzle some Russian dressing on the top after I took it out of the oven!
- Add chopped tomato to the mac and cheese, crumble feta on top, and use pita bread or chips for your topping to make a Greek-style mac and cheese.
- Add leftover sliced steak and fried onions and peppers to your mac and cheese, top with provolone, and use hoagie rolls for your topping to make Philly cheesesteak mac and cheese. Don’t forget the ketchup and hot sauce to dip bites into.
Baked Mac and Cheat: Macaroni and Cheese with Bacon, Brussels Sprouts, and Cornbread Topping
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 1 hour 30 minutes from scratch, 40 minutes if using leftovers
Makes about 6 servings
Special Equipment: standard muffin pan and muffin liners
- 3/4 cup cornmeal
- 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 tablespoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 cup water (or milk, if you happen to have it in the house)
- 1 large egg
- 2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
Mac and Cheese
- 4-6 pieces of bacon (depending on how bacon-y you like it)
- 2 boxes mac and cheese (I like the Trader Joe’s white cheddar shells and cheese)
- 4 tablespoons butter or margarine
- 15 Brussels sprouts, cleaned and quartered
- 1 red onion, diced and divided into 2 equal portions
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
- salt and pepper
- red pepper flakes (optional)
- 2-3 tablespoons chèvre
- shaved cheese (optional; I like Trader Joe’s shaved Parmesan, Romano, and Asiago mix)
Make the cornbread muffins:
Preheat the oven to 400 ˚F and line 9-10 wells of a standard muffin tin with paper liners.
Whisk the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together in a medium mixing bowl. Mix the water, egg, and butter together in a small bowl, then stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until just combined. Don’t over-mix.
Divide the batter equally between the prepared muffin wells. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the muffins are cooked through but not burnt on bottom. Keep the oven on.
Make the mac and cheese:
While the muffins are in the oven, bring a pot of water to a boil for the boxed mac and cheese and cook the bacon in a large, high-sided pan over medium heat until crispy. Remove the pan from the heat and transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate, leaving the drippings in the pan.
Prepare the mac and cheese according to box directions (adding the 4 tablespoons butter and the cheese packet) and leave the mac and cheese in the pot.
While your mac and cheese is cooking, return the bacon pan to a burner over medium heat and add the Brussels sprouts and half the diced onion to the pan–if you’re using leftover bacon, just use 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil to cook your veg. Cook for about 10 minutes until browned, adding salt and pepper to taste, as well as red pepper flakes if you’re into a little bit of heat like I am.
Reduce the heat to low and add the garlic. Cook until softened.
Stir the chèvre into the warm mac and cheese. Crumble in the reserved bacon. Mix in the sautéed Brussels sprouts, onion, and garlic. Pour the mac and cheese mixture into a large casserole dish and sprinkle with shaved cheese, if using.
Add a little olive oil to your pan and brown the remaining half of the diced onion. Crumble in cornbread muffins to create your desired amount of topping (I use about six). Turn heat to medium-high and cook for about 5 minutes just to brown the cornbread, stirring so it doesn’t burn.
Top the mac and cheese with the cornbread mixture and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the top is lightly golden brown.
This baked mac and cheese keeps well in the fridge for about a week if you keep it covered with tin foil. It’s easy to heat back up and is delicious cold for breakfast (it has bacon in it, so that makes it breakfast food, right?).
Rebecca is a writer living in Philadelphia. When not writing fiction and poetry, she blogs about young adult books at Crunchings & Munchings and copy edits at Hermes Editing. She likes bonfires, winter beaches, minor chord harmonies, and cheese. But mostly cheese.