Just the thought of this dish makes me happy. Soft, cheesy and creamy sauce with salty, crispy bacon bits topped with crunchy breadcrumbs and the 'healthy' addition of the spinach. This is the ultimate comfort food for me and one of the first dishes I learnt to cook for myself, although in a simpler version. If you don't fancy bacon/pancetta or spinach leave it out, it will still be super awesome and delicious. Also feel free to change it up a bit adding roasted peppers, fried mushrooms, sweetcorn or green chillies. This is a great dish and everyone has their own signature version. Here is my current favourite.
Ingredients Serves 4 as a main dish or 6 - 8 as a side.
500g pasta shapes
300g strong cheese, grated (I used equal quantities of mature cheddar, gruyere and emmental)
200g fresh spinach
100g cubed pancetta or streaky bacon
100ml cream (optional)
50g plain flour
approx 70g bread crumbs (I used fresh so had to toast them myself but skip this stage if you have shop bought breadcrumbs such as panko)
1. Preheat your oven to 200C fan.
2. Cook your pasta according to the instructions on the packet but drain it a minute or so before the end of the time. You don't want it to be over cooked at this stage. Leave it in the pan to one side.
3. If using fresh breadcrumbs toast them off in the oven, under the grill or in a cast iron skillet or frying pan on the hob.
4. In a wide frying pan crisp up your bacon or pancetta. When this is done set to one side to drain on kitchen paper and pour off the excess fat from the pan into a separate dish. (Please don't pour it down the drain - dispose of it properly).
5. Return the pan to the heat then add the spinach and wilt down. Squeeze out as much of the water as you can then scatter the spinach on the base of the oven proof dish.
6. Put a saucepan over a medium heat then add the butter and flour and stir together until the butter is completely melted and combined with the flour.
7. Now, little by little add in the milk stirring throughly after each addition to ensure it is completely combined and no lumps are forming. You hear about some people heating the milk separately, I never bother because it's just extra mess and my sauces always work out fine this way.
8. Once you have added all the milk grate in a little nutmeg and black pepper to taste and the cream if using then continue to heat the white sauce until it has thicken so that it coats the back of a spoon and the raw flour taste has gone. Turn off the heat then add 2/3 of the cheese and stir until it has melted in. Now stir through your crispy bacon bits.
9. It's now time to build up the final dish. Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta and stir until all the pasta is covered then transfer to the oven proof dish that has the spinach on the bottom.
10. Sprinkle over the remaining cheese followed by the breadcrumbs then place in the oven for around 20 minutes or until it is golden brown on top and bubbling round the edges.