Let’s talk about the word ‘umami’. It’s a good word. Rolls off the tongue with ease, sounds vaguely foreign (it is, it’s Japanese) and you’ve likely heard it before but aren’t sure what it actually means.
Umami can be roughly translated as ‘pleasant savory taste’ and since 1985, it has been classified as the fifth of five basic tastes (along with sweet, sour, bitter and salty — thanks Wikipedia). It’s that salty, earthy, meaty taste that doesn’t quite fit into any of the other categories.
It’s also the BEST. I heart umami hard.
Why? Because it’s just so gosh darn satisfying. It lights up your taste buds like a Christmas tree and makes you audibly ‘YUM’. It also makes you naturally salivate more, which is a signal to your brain that you find what you’re eating quite delicious (if we’re getting really technical). Basically, five stars for umami all around.
And the best way to capture that umami-ness? Mac & Cheese. Even better? Add bacon and brussels sprouts (say whaaat?!). This rich, cozy casserole is packed with flavor of the umami variety and it’s sure to satisfy, especially on cold nights like the ones we’ve been having here in NYC (winter is coming, ho hum).
You ready? OK, let’s do this.
Baked Mac & Cheese with Brussels Sprouts and Bacon
1 pound of cooked pasta (macaroni or fusilli work nicely)
5-6 slices of bacon, cut into small pieces
1 shallot, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ pound brussels sprouts, stems removed and sliced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 ½ cups whole milk
¾ cup half & half
6 ounces gruyere cheese, freshly grated
6 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, freshly grated
2 ounces parmesan cheese, freshly grated
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ cup panko bread crumbs
2 tablespoons regular fine breadcrumbs
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Kitchen equipment: large pot, cast iron skillet, heavy-bottomed saucepan, cheese grater
First things first, preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Heat a large pot of salted water on the stove until boiling, then cook the pasta per the package instructions. Drain and set aside.
Next, heat a large, oven-safe skillet (cast iron is best) over medium-low heat and add the bacon and cook until the fat is just rendered. Rendered, you say? What, pray tell, is that? It is a fancy way of saying cook the bacon until the fatty part starts to melt and you’re left with mostly just the meaty part. Should only take a few minutes. Once properly rendered, remove ¼ of the bacon and set aside on a paper towel lined plate. Cook the remaining bacon to your preferred stage of doneness (anywhere between chewy and aggressively crispy). Add the shallot and garlic to the bacon and cook 1-2 minutes until translucent and fragrant. Add the brussels sprouts, stirring well to coat. Cook them until soft, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and set aside.
Side note: you can totally abandon the bacon and make this dish veg — it’s just as good meat free. Instead of using the bacon fat to cook the shallots/garlic/brussels, sub in a few tablespoons of olive oil and you’re all set.
And now we make the cheese sauce. CHEESE SAUCE. Best phrase ever, no?
To start, heat your heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat until hot, then add the butter. Melt until sizzling and frothy, then add the flour and whisk constantly until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes. This creates the roux (so many fancy words!) that is the foundation of any good creamy sauce — it will thicken the sauce and add a lovely nutty flavor. Once the roux is ready to go, take your pan off the stove and pour in the milk and the half & half. Place your pan back on the stove and cook until the sauce is slightly thickened, stirring constantly, about 5 minutes. Add in all but one ounce of the gruyere, cheddar and parmesan, stirring until the cheese is melted. Add the nutmeg and cayenne and season with salt and pepper. Once the cheese is melted, add the cooked pasta and stir to incorporate. Pour the pasta and sauce over the brussels sprouts in the skillet and toss well to combine. Sprinkle the leftover cheese on top, then add the panko and breadcrumbs. Finally, add the reserved bacon you set aside earlier on top of the breadcrumbs.
Bake for 30-35 minutes until the top is golden and bubbly.
This is fantastic straight from the oven or at room temperature or warmed up later the same night or warmed up the next day or eaten with your hands cold over the sink for breakfast (too far?). Fine. Let’s just say it’s good all the time.
Get down with your cheesy, brussel-y, bacon-y self and you’ll see. Umami forever. Enjoy!