Cavatappi and Cheese with Pancetta and Kale

The sharp flavors of parmesan and pecorino melt in with a mild mozzarella to create a creamy and delicious twist on macaroni and cheese.

I’m not going to lie. I will eat just about any combination of cheese and pasta you hand me. You can also find a boxed variety in my pantry! That said, sometimes you just want to elevate a comfort-food staple.

I wanted to use parmesan and pecorino because of the wonderful flavor they bring to one of my favorite side dishes, pasta cacio e pepe. I knew, though, that I needed a good melting cheese, and that’s where the mozzarella comes in. Now, I used parmigiano-reggiano and pecorino romano, two pricey cheeses. Given the flavor they bring, I decided to go with an inexpensive block of mozzarella from the dairy aisle.

For this recipe, you will make great use of all those sides on your box grater! Pecorino has a super-high melting temperature, so it needs to be grated extra finely. The parmesan can be a little heftier, and then I just use the traditional grate for the mozzarella.

From the top right, counterclockwise:
mozzarella, parmigiano-reggiano, and pecorino romano

Since the focal point of this dish is the blend of Italian cheeses, I decided to use pancetta as the protein. You could absolutely use bacon, though. I like that Boar’s Head offers a 4 oz. package of diced pancetta that I can usually find at the deli counter.

To add a little extra flavor to the kale, I heated the olive oil with slices of garlic but removed them just as they began to brown. If you would like a stronger garlic flavor, you could mince the garlic and add it to the oil just a minute before the kale. Note that I don’t add any salt to the kale or the bechamel. The parmesan and pecorino, as well as the pancetta, already bring saltiness to the dish. The only place you need to add any is to the pasta water.

For the pasta, I chose to use cavatappi because I find the corkscrew shape fun. I do think a curved pasta works best here.

Cavatappi and Cheese with Pancetta and Kale

Difficulty: Intermediate Prep Time 30 min Cook Time 45 min Total Time 1 hr 15 mins Servings: 6


Sauteed Kale

Panko topping

Cavatappi and Cheese with Pancetta and Kale

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

  1. Crisp the Pancetta

    Add the diced to pancetta to a cool Dutch oven over low to medium-low heat in order to slowly render the fat. Once you have enough fat rendered to coat the bottom of the pan, you can raise the temperature to medium-low to medium. Cook the pancetta until it is golden brown and crispy, stirring occasionally, 5-7 minutes. 

    I started the stovetop on 2 and increased it to 4.
  2. Wilt the kale

    While the pancetta browns, add the olive oil and sliced garlic to a separate pan. Heat over medium heat until the garlic is a light golden brown, being careful not to let the garlic burn. Remove the garlic from the pan and add the kale. Saute for 2-3 minutes until the kale is wilted. Remove from heat and set aside. 

    If you would prefer a stronger garlic flavor, you can mince the garlic and just add it to the pan a minute before the kale.
  3. Start your pasta

    Add the pasta to salted, boiling water. Cook 1-2 minutes less than the package directions for a slightly firm bite. The pasta will continue to cook in the oven.

    Reserve some of the pasta water before draining in case you need it to loosen the sauce.

  4. Make the bechamel

    Once you have removed the pancetta from the Dutch oven, add the butter and flour to the drippings to make your roux. Whisk the flour and the fat together, cooking for 2-3 minutes just to cook out the flour taste. You don't want to brown it, as that would darken your sauce.

    Slowly add in the milk, whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Bring to a low boil, add the pepper, and reduce the heat. Cook for 2-3 minutes to thicken slightly. You want the sauce to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from heat.

  5. Fold in the cheese!

    ... and the pasta. Add the pecorino and parmesan, one at a time, stirring to incorporate. Slowly add in the mozzarella, allowing each batch to melt into the sauce. Add the pasta.

    Pour the mixture into a greased 2-quart casserole dish and prepare the topping.

    Your mixture should be fairly loose as it will continue to thicken in the oven. The pasta will also absorb some of the sauce.
  6. Prepare the topping

    Add the melted butter to the panko bread crumbs, stirring to incorporate well. Stir in the ¼ cup of parmigiano-reggiano.

    Sprinkle the topping evenly over the top of the pasta mixture.

  7. Bake and serve

    Place the casserole in a 350 degree oven and bake for 30 minutes, until bubbly. Allow to stand for at least five minutes before serving.

Keywords: macaroni and cheese, mac and cheese

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