This was the first recipe that was my "thing," back in college. It was the first dish that my friends specifically requested that I make, and the one that I had memorized really well in the event that it needed to be busted out after a long night of partying. It's smoky thanks to the bacon and smoked gouda, and it's got a kick thanks to the pepper jack and cayenne. It's super decadent already, but if I'm really feeling decadent, I'll let the dish of mac and cheese cool overnight in the refrigerator, cut it until squares, and then bread it and deep-fry it.
Technique Tip: This recipe uses the fat from the bacon to make a roux that will thicken the sauce.
Swap Option: You can swap out the bacon for turkey bacon, pancetta, another type of salty meat, or simply omit it. If you omit the meat, you can substitute butter for the bacon fat in the roux.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease an 8 x 8-inch baking dish.2.
Cook pasta according to the package directions, reducing the cooking time by 1 minute. Drain and set aside.3.
In a large pan, cook the bacon until crispy. Chop the bacon and set aside. Pour off all but 1/4 cup of the fat in the pan. Heat it over medium-high heat and add the flour, whisking until combined, and then cook for 1 minute. Add half the milk, whisking continuously until thickened, about 5 minutes and then repeat with the other half of the milk. Add the Gouda, pepper jack, and all but 2 tablespoons of the Parmesan and stir until the cheese melts. Stir in the paprika, cayenne, and salt and black pepper to taste.4.
Fold in the shells and bacon and transfer to the greased baking dish. Top with the panko, a pinch of salt, a few turns of pepper, and the reserved 2 tablespoons Parmesan. Bake until the top is browned, about 25 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes and enjoy with ketchup, if desired.