I’ve been craving comfort foods nowadays more than ever. When things are uncertain, and your head gets filled with unnecessary thoughts, the best thing to do is to cook something that comforts you. For me, it’s kimchi mac and cheese, a beautiful marriage of two of my favorite comfort foods. It’s a relatively low-lift recipe that can easily please a crowd, or even just one person. The beauty of this baked pasta is that you finish the cooking in a baking pan, so you get the satisfaction of crispy edges, similar to what you’d find on pizza, while enjoying soft, tender pasta.
The idea of this spicy, kimchi baked pasta came to me when I wanted to get both of my favorite comfort foods: Korean flavors and baked pasta. I drew inspiration from spicy, tangy kimchi jjigae, a kimchi stew studded with fatty pork bites and salty, tangy kimchi, bubbling in anchovy broth. So I married two of my favorites by mixing the best parts of spicy, salty kimchi jjigae flavors with cheesy pasta sauce. The cheese sauce harmonizes with the spicy paste, brimming with anchovy fillets, crispy bacon, and kimchi, and the pasta is just as good of a vehicle as a bowl of white rice is to let these flavors shine. This ultimate comfort dish is what we all need right now—something crunchy, spicy, and satisfying.
Making the Spicy Paste for Pasta
This spicy paste—made with chopped anchovy fillets, bacon, kimchi, gochugaru, and gochujang—has all the primary flavors of kimchi stew. Anchovy fillets mimic the deep characters that you get from anchovy broth without leaving any fishy taste. Be sure to use the oil that comes in the anchovies since it creates a rich aroma when mixed with bacon fat. If you want to make it vegetarian, you can skip this part.
The taste of this paste also depends on the stage of fermentation of your kimchi. If you are cooking with well-fermented kimchi, it will create more depth than just quick, crunchy kimchi. A trick is to add a dash of vinegar to infuse the taste of fermented kimchi.
Gochujang (Korean red pepper paste) and gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes) not only add distinct Korean flavors, but also a unique, ruby-red color to the dish. If you don’t have these particular condiments, feel free to experiment with different types of spicy flavors; harissa or chipotle adobo sauce would be an excellent substitute for gochujang. If you don’t have gochugaru, red pepper flakes will add similar heat. Be mindful that the taste will be different, but it will still be delicious after mixed with cream and cheese.
Experience with Different Cheeses
The cheese-sauce-making process is very similar to preparing a traditional mac and cheese sauce. You’ll begin by making a roux, made with equal parts flour and butter. For this recipe, try not to get any color on your roux. If you make a roux with brown butter, its naturally nutty taste won’t go well with the salty, spicy paste.
This cheese sauce is extremely customizable and versatile, depending on the ingredients. I used a Mexican blend that has a little bit of cheddar and Monterey Jack, but you can experiment with brie, mozzarella, and even goat cheese. Also, you can easily pair this milk sauce with steak or baked salmon, or toss it with any pasta you like.
A Note on Pasta Shapes
I’m a big fan of farfalle in baked pasta, but you can use macaroni or penne. One of the advantages of using farfalle is that you get more surface area for the sauce, maximizing flavors. Also, when the pasta gets baked in a pan, it creates more crispy bits, adding different textures. Tubular pasta, like rigatoni, and penne, will also absorb the sauce well, but it will less likely to create crispy textures.
The Final Steps
After making the cheese sauce, it might seem too thick. But it will loosen up from the heat of the pasta and pasta water. Once you mix the cheese sauce with the spicy paste, toss it with the pasta, and then season more, if necessary. Depending on what kind of condiments you use, the seasoning can vary. Don’t forget that you are topping the pasta with more cheese, so don’t over salt it.
Spicy Kimchi Mac and Cheese Recipe
- 1 can of 2oz anchovies packed in olive oil
- 4 strips of bacon, cut into 1-inch
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 cup of kimchi, chopped
- 2 tbsp of gochugaru
- 2 tbsp of gochujang
- 8 tbsp of butter
- 8 tbsp of flour
- 2 cups of milk
- 3 cups of cheese, preferably mozzarella and cheddar
- 1 lb of farfalle pasta
- Chopped scallions for garnish (optional)
- Preheat the oven for 375F.
- In a large skillet over medium-low heat, render the fat from bacon with olive oil from the can of anchovies, until bacon bits are crispy, for 4-5 minutes.
- Add chopped anchovies, diced onions, and kimchi to the pan, and saute everything for a few minutes until chopped onions and kimchi are translucent.
- Meanwhile, combine gochugaru, gochujang, and 2 tbsp of water to make a spicy paste.
- Add a spicy paste to the anchovy, bacon, kimchi mixture in the pan, and saute for 3-4 minutes until it creates its chili oil. Reserve it on the side.
- In a separate pan, make a roux by whisking melted butter with flour over medium heat. Once the roux gets slightly thick, pour room-temperature milk while whisking more until everything is combined. The milk mixture should thicken over the heat in 2-3 minutes. Add 2 cups of cheese into the milk sauce. Season the sauce with salt.
- Pour the cheese sauce into the reserved anchovy, kimchi mixture. Mix everything thoroughly.
- Meanwhile, cook your desired pasta 2-3 short of the cooking time. Reserve 1 cup of pasta water. Drain the slightly undercooked pasta and put it aside.
- Spray non-stick cooking spray in an oven-safe 4.8 Quart baking pan. Mix cooked pasta with spicy, cheesy sauce in the pan by using two spatulas. The sauce might seem too thick, but the heat from the past will loosen the sauce. If you have a problem with mixing the pasta with sauce, add reserved pasta water to ease the mixing. Top the combined pasta with more cheese.
- Bake the pasta in the preheated oven for 40-45 minutes, until the cheese gets melted and the pasta is bubbling.
- Garnish with chopped scallions.