I love macaroni and cheese. Every variation of it. The super cheap boxed kind with lurid, day-glo orange powdered "cheese product," to gourmet versions full of lobster and truffles. Always have. my husband, however, hated the boxed stuff so much as a kid, that he once wrote down on his summer camp application that he was allergic to it, so he would get out of eating it in the dining hall. Lying. On an application for church camp. He really, really hated macaroni and cheese.
But my macaroni and cheese--that, he loves. And this baked macaroni and cheese deserves to be loved. It's rich, decadent, and bursting with flavorful cheeses, like cheddar, asiago, and gruyere. This homemade mac and cheese is worth every calorie and bite.
Baked Macaroni and Cheese Recipe:
- one stick (half a cup) of butter
- 5 1/2 cups of milk (skim or whatever you have on hand is just fine)
- 1/2 cup flour
- 2 t salt
- 1 t dried mustard
- 1/4 t nutmeg
- 1/2 t black pepper
- 3 1/2 cups sharp cheddar (1/2 a cup of that is to be sprinkled on top)
- 1 cup gruyere
- 1 cup asiago (1/2 a cup of that is to be sprinkled on top)
- 1 pound macaroni noodles
I almost always grate my own cheese. Commercially grated cheese has stuff added to it to keep it from sticking together, isn't available in the sharp, flavorful cheeses I prefer, and is more expensive than grating it myself. If I had to use a box grater to shred cheese, however, I'd totally buy pre-shredded cheese. I hate using box shredders! I use my beloved Cuisinart food processor to grate my cheese, then plop the pieces in the dishwasher; the machines do all the hard work for me.
We start by making a roux, which will thicken our béchamel sauce (the glorious stuff the macaroni gets baked in). Roux is very simple; melt the butter in a large pot, and once the butter starts bubbling, add the 1/2 cup of flour. Stir with a whisk and cook for one minute. Just this one minute of cooking is enough to take away that raw flour taste, and really makes a difference in the flavor of the finished macaroni and cheese.
Once the roux has been cooked for a minute, it's time to add the milk. Many recipes will tell you that you have to heat the milk up first, and only whisk it into the roux once the milk has simmered and is hot. Not true. I once went to an event and saw Christpher Kimball, of Cook's Illustrated fame, speak about this very subject. Of course, I don't remember WHY we no longer need to heat the milk before adding it to the roux for a béchamel sauce, but I remember that it had something to do with how milk used to be processed, and that the instruction to heat the milk first is just a holdover from those earlier times. I tested it out myself, and true enough, my beloved mac and cheese turned out just as nicely without heating the milk first. I haven't pre-heated the milk since that day. So go ahead, pour it in cold, and whisk the milk and the roux together.
Cook the milk and roux mixture for about eight minutes, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens.
Remove from heat, and stir in the nutmeg (I borrowed my husband's hands to show off the nutmeg grinder, which I totally recommend), the salt, the powdered mustard, and the black pepper.
Add in the cheese, and stir until the cheese has melted into the sauce.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook the macaroni for only two minutes. We want only partially cooked pasta! It will finish cooking in the oven. Drain the macaroni, and mix into the cheese sauce.
Pour the cheese sauce and noodles into a 9x13 pan. Sprinkle remaining shredded cheese over the surface.
You can top with breadcrumbs, or, as I prefer, with crushed up cheesy crackers. I used Cheez-Its here, but I've also enjoyed using goldfish crackers. I love this crunchy topping so much more than breadcrumbs!
Bake for 30 minutes at 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
When it's hot, it's creamy and amazingly delicious. When it starts to cool down, it's firmer, but still amazingly delicious. It's the perfect, crowd-pleasing potluck food.
You can also do everything but bake the mac and cheese ahead of time. I take the unbaked pan of pasta up with us to the cabin when we go skiing in the winter. When we come home from a long day on the slopes, all I have to do is pop the pan in the oven, and 30 minutes later we have dinner. I've never tried freezing it in the unbaked stage, but I'll bet that would work spectacularly, too. I'm sure you'd have to adjust the baking time and temperature if you were to bake from a frozen state. If you experiment with that, let me know what works!