There's nothing like creamy, homemade mac and cheese and this hits the spot! My daughter's friends rave about this dish, and it's perfect to make, put in a disposable pan and send with her to heat when she and her friends are ready. This recipe freezes well, just thaw before popping in the oven. Variations welcome, including different hard cheeses, bacon vs. pancetta (or skipping altogether to make it vegetarian), different shape pastas. This is easy enough to throw together on a weeknight and is great to feed a crowd.
In a large pot, boil water for the pasta. Season with salt. Cook until firm but not soft. The pasta will continue to absorb a little from the sauce, so keeping the pasta firm assures your pasta won't be soggy in the casserole. Drain, reserving about 1 cup of the pasta water to adjust sauce thickness if necessary.
Meanwhile, cook the pancetta in a large skillet until crunchy. Reserve about 1 tablespoon of the grease in the pan while you spoon out the pancetta onto a paper towel. Set aside.
In the same skillet as you cooked the pancetta in (with the reserved grease), add the butter and heat over medium heat until melted. Add the flour and whisk until incorporated. Cook until slightly browned, about 3 minutes.
Whisking continually, add the half and half. Whisk until incorporated. Add the rest of the milk and continue to whisk until it is well blended and smooth. Stir in the thyme, Italian seasoning, salt, pepper, garlic, nutmeg and cayenne. Cook, whisking continually, until thickened - about 5 minutes or so.
When the mixture coats the back of a spoon thickly, remove from heat.
Stir in the cheddar cheese and parmesan until melted. TASTE at this point to make sure you like the seasonings. Adjust to your preference.
Add the drained pasta and stir well. Add reserved pasta water, a few tablespoons at a time, to thin the sauce if desired.
Spray a deep casserole dish with Pam. Spoon in half of the pasta. Top with the mozzarella and pancetta.
Spoon in the rest of the pasta and top with panko.
Bake in a 400 degree oven for about 35 - 40 minutes until browned and bubbling.